Sexual predator laws: 1939. Laws authorizing the commitment of sex offenders first took root in the 1930s, caused by policymakers looking for medical explanations for criminal behavior and the desire to prioritize treatment over punishment. In 1939, the Minnesota Legislature adopted a civil commitment law in which a person found to have a psychopathic personality could be committed. The law was infrequently utilized. In the 1970s, only 13 people were committed and in the 1980s, only 14 people were committed. At the time, committed offenders would, in lieu of prison, be sent to a state mental hospital.
Sexual predator laws: 1980s. In the 1980s, the involuntary commitment process was changed. Commitment was not initiated until after the defendant had served his time in prison. Prior to release, the State would petition the court for a commitment order based on the proposition that the person has a psychopathic personality disorder and cannot control his sexual impulses.
Dennis Linehan: 1994. Dennis Linehan had a checkered history. In 1956, at age 15, Linehan pulled down the shorts of a 4-year-old girl and was sent to reform school. In 1960, at age 19, he had intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. In 1963, Linehan engaged in window peeping. Later that year, he and a friend beat and repeatedly raped a woman. On June 10, 1965, after window peeping, 23-year-old Linehan killed a 14-year-old while attempting to sexually assault her. In a one-month window before his arrest, Linehan committed two additional sexual assaults. He pleaded guilty to kidnapping yet another woman and was sentenced to a maximum prison term of 40 years. While serving his sentence, on June 20, 1975, he escaped from Stillwater Correctional Facility's minimum-security unit and assaulted a 12-year-old in a ditch off the side of a Michigan road. He was convicted of assault with intent to commit criminal sexual misconduct and was imprisoned in Michigan. He was returned to Stillwater prison five years later.
In 1992, Dennis Linehan was about to be released from prison. The State tried to have him committed. The district court determined that he should be committed, as did the Minnesota Court of Appeals. In July 1994, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that he needed to be released because the State “failed to prove that Linehan had an utter lack of power to control his sexual impulses.”
The Sexually Dangerous Person Act: 1994. Reacting to the Linehan decision, the Minnesota Legislature enacted the Minnesota Civil Commitment and Treatment Act, which provided for the commitment of an individual found by the court to be a “sexually dangerous person” (SDP) or a “sex psychopathic personality” (SPP). Generally speaking, an SPP must be found to have an utter lack of power to control his sexual impulses; an SDP is a person who has engaged in harmful sexual conduct, has manifested a sexual mental disorder, and is likely to engage in future acts of sexual misconduct. Under this standard, Linehan was again committed.
Katie Poirer: 1999. Swanson was appointed Deputy Attorney General in 1999. In May of that year, Katie Poirer went missing from a service station in Moose Lake, Minnesota. Katie could not be found after the abduction.
After months of anguish, Katie’s tooth was found in a fire pit on land owned by Donald Blom. He was tried and convicted for murder in 2000.
It turned out that Blom was a serial rapist. Blom had raped a 14-year-old girl in 1975, committed aggravated assault in 1978, and in 1983 he abducted two girls, took them to a remote wood, tied them to a tree, and then choked and revived them several times. A police officer saw the girl’s car, got out and looked for them, and found them tied to a tree. Blom fled but was later captured. He was captured and sent to prison.
For reasons never explained, the authorities do not appear to have interviewed Blom as a potential candidate for civil commitment before he was released from prison. Swanson joined every Minnesotan in being horrified by the murder, and she was extremely bothered that the government didn’t commit Blom after he served his prison time for the 1983 abductions.
Thereafter, Katie’s brother was hired to work under Swanson in the Attorney General’s Office.
Dru Sjodin: 2003. In 2003, Dru Sjodin was abducted and murdered. It took four months to find her body. The murder was brutal. She was murdered by Alfonzo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had just been released from prison after serving a 23-year prison term for kidnapping and raping a woman. Rodriguez had previously been convicted on several occasions for rape. Prior to his discharge from prison, Rodriguez told his counselors that he didn’t trust himself to be outside of prison. He was still released. Six months later, he killed Dru Sjodin.
Thereafter, corrections authorities began to screen sex offenders prior to release from prison. The end result was that the Minnesota civil commitment population grew to more than 700 by 2013.
Thereafter, the program has been criticized by a variety of groups. Some go so far as to argue that the commitment of a sex offender—no matter how heinous or unable to control his impulses—who has served his time in prison is de facto unconstitutional.
Tom Duvall. 2013. In 2013, Swanson was contacted by the family of a woman who was brutally raped and left for dead by a serial rapist. Duvall had sexually assaulted many other girls. After his last offense, he was civilly committed. He had now petitioned for discharge from commitment. The family met with an assistant county attorney, who told them that the rapist was being released and there was nothing the family could do about it. Swanson met with the family and gathered the records, which disclosed the following:
In 1978, Duvall was convicted for raping a 17-year-old girl while giving her a ride home from the State Fair. In 1981 five months after he was paroled, he was convicted when he tried to force a woman into his car at knife point. A few days after his release for that crime, he assaulted a 15-year-old girl on her way to school. Later the same day, he sexually assaulted two girls, ages 14 and 15, at gunpoint. He was convicted. Then on December 26, 1987, the day after Christmas, and 12 days after his release from prison, he forced his way into the 17-year-old’s apartment claiming to need the phone. He then bound her with an electric cord and repeatedly raped her while hitting her with a hammer for over three hours. He left her for dead. He was convicted and sentenced to the harshest punishment at the time for sex offenders: 20 years.
Swanson’s meetings with the victim and her family were quite moving. Swanson vowed to the victim and her family that she would do what it takes to oppose his release. She stood up alone against an array of government officials and opposed the release of Duvall and was successful in stopping it in 2014.
Kevin Karsjens: 2013. As noted above, in 2013, there were 700 patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Kevin Karsjens and a number of other patients filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Minnesota, claiming that the Minnesota Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and its administration by the State were unconstitutional. The matter was vigorously litigated in federal court. The court initially ordered the creation of a “Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force” to recommend (unsuccessfully) legislative proposals to change the program.
Phase I of the bench trial occurred from February 9, 2015 to March 18, 2015. During the six-week trial, the district court heard testimony from four Rule 706 experts appointed to assist the court, several named plaintiffs, and MSOP employees and staff.
The trial court ruled that the Minnesota civil commitment structure was unconstitutional for the following reason: 1) There was no requirement for periodic risk assessments, 2) there was no judicial bypass mechanism, 3) the discharge criteria was more onerous than the admission criteria, 4) the burden of proof in a petition for discharge was on the patient, 5) the State did not establish less restrictive alternatives to commitment, and 6) the statutes do not require the State to take action to discharge a patient if it determines that a patient no longer meets the criteria for continued commitment.
The trial court also determined that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program was administered in an unconstitutional manner.
Swanson appealed the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the State. First, her office alleged a due process error based on the district judge's bias against the State. Second, her office argued several jurisdictional defects. Third, her office disputed the district court's determinations on the merits, focusing specifically on whether the district court applied the proper standards of scrutiny to the plaintiffs' due process claims.
The trial judge held the State to a “strict scrutiny” standard, putting the burden of proof on the State to justify the process. Swanson’s office argued that the standard of review is whether individual actions in the civil commitment process are “reasonably related” to treating the patients or protecting the public. The Eighth Circuit agreed and upheld the statute.
Swanson’s office also appealed the determination by the trial judge that the State’s administration of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program violates the Constitution. The Eighth Circuit rejected the district court’s determination, stating that none of the trial findings “shock the conscience” of the Court and that, unless a fundamental liberty interest is affected, the “as applied” standard of review must meet such a standard.
The Karsjens case was dismissed in 2018.
Thomas Duvall: 2018. Thomas Duvall petitioned the court for release from the MSOP in 2014. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and the Hennepin County Attorney initially supported his release. Swanson intervened in the matter and conducted discovery. Eventually, the two government agencies withdrew their support and Duvall withdrew his petition. Swanson was quoted to say that Duvall put his victims through nearly a year of hell while the matter was reviewed.
In 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a Judicial Appeal Panel decision to provisionally discharge Duvall. The Minnesota Supreme Court declined to hear the matter, clearing Duvall’s path to provision discharge. He is the 18th person to be provisionally discharged since the program began in 1995. Duvall’s release was continually opposed by Swanson, the only state official to ever bother to sit down with his victims and listen to their story.
Conclusion. This extensive litigation took more than five years to resolve. During this time, Swanson compiled her own inventory of the patients. One study by the State found that 50 randomly sampled patients had an average number of 17 victims. Over 40 percent of committed patients used a weapon in at least one of their offenses. 14 percent were charged or convicted of murder or attempted murder in addition to their sex crimes. Almost 10 percent were sexual sadist and nearly 50 percent were pedophiles. Nearly 2/3 had a high degree of psychopathy.
Karsjens v. Piper, 845 F.3d 394 (2017)
Eighth Circuit Opinion: