Police Blotter: Imprisoned sex offenders demand PCs

Sex offenders committed to Minnesota facility say confiscation of their PCs in security crackdown violates their constitutional rights.

Police Blotter is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Sex offenders held in Minnesota facility say it was illegal for guards to confiscate personal computers used in their rooms.

When: Court of Appeals of Minnesota rules on May 8.

Outcome: Sex offenders have no right to possess PCs.

What happened, according to court documents:
The sleepy town of Moose Lake is home to one of Minnesota's sex offender programs, where "people who are committed by courts as a sexual psychopathic personality or a sexual dangerous person" are civilly committed. The unit goes by the generic name of "Therapeutic Concepts Unit."

Last April, four patients escaped from a second TCU location, which raised alarms in nearby communities. During their escape, the sex offenders removed metal bars and broke security glass in windows.

One of the men was a convicted rapist, who was identified and captured after appearing on America's Most Wanted a few weeks later. The other three were caught within hours of their escape.

That escape prompted Minnesota to immediately confiscate TCU patients' computers for security inspections. Rodger Robb, a TCU patient, believed that his computer would not be returned.

He sued, claiming a violation of his due process rights, and was joined by fellow patient Larry Schultz. Other reasons the administration gave for the confiscations include: The rooms are small and electrical outlets are limited.

"The point about this computer thing that is so angering to so many people is that they painted with this real broad brush," Robb said, according to CityPages.com. "I have never been accused of misusing my computer for anything. I have never misused my computer for anything."

The confiscation is part of a broader, planned crackdown on personal computers owned by TCU patients, with administrators arguing that the machines are used to store sexual images and ones in common areas should be used instead. That crackdown was put on hold until Robb's lawsuit was decided, though. (A previous Police Blotter article described how one TCU patient claimed to have a First Amendment right to have Playboy images on his PC.)

Robb and Schultz lost before a trial judge, who rejected their request for an injunction and ruled that the duo had "fallen far short" of demonstrating that they would suffer a violation of their rights.

So did a state appeals court, which said last week that administrators enjoy great latitude "to accommodate a growing patient population and provide a safe and secure facility for patients and staff."

Excerpts from the appeals court's opinion:
Appellants argue that the state infringed upon their due process rights under U.S. Const. amend. V and Minn. Const. art. I, Sec. 7 because they were deprived of property interests. Although the protocol does not allow personal computers in the patients' rooms, they have access to common-use computers and may transfer appropriate data from their personal computer hard drives to disks. Appellants speculate that the state intends to destroy Robb's computer and appellants' other property. Because he has copious amounts of saved material on his computer, Robb speculates that it would be impossible to put it onto disks.

Appellants cite no evidence to support these contentions. And it is important for the state to have the ability to adjust policies to further MSOP's safety goals. Gary Grimm, MSOP program director, specifically denies appellants' contentions in his affidavit, stating "if the patient does not send out his computer, (MSOP) will place it in storage. (MSOP) will not destroy or otherwise dispose of patients' computers." (Editor's note: MSOP stands for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.)

The relationship between the parties is that appellants are committed in the TCU at MSOP, and respondents operate the treatment facility. The district court found that the statutory requirements allow the state "wide latitude" to develop programs and policies for the administration of the program, including disallowing contraband contained on computers. This is consistent with the articulated policy to maintain a "secure and orderly environment that is safe for persons in treatment and staff and supportive of the treatment program."

As the district court found, it would be a heavy administrative burden to require that the district court review each item of personal property to determine whether it complies with protocol. Absent a clear violation of the patients' rights, the state must exercise its professional judgment to accommodate a growing patient population and provide a safe and secure facility for patients and staff. On the current record, it was not an abuse of discretion for the district court, after considering each of the governing factors, to deny appellants' motion to temporarily enjoin the state from holding or confiscating appellants' personal property.

 

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