Florida Judge Reverses Verdict in Sexual Predator Case

March 4, 2013

Defendants who were previously convicted of sexual motivated criminal offenses are subject to incarceration even after completing their sentences. Civil commitment pursuant to the 1998 Jimmy Ryce Act is a real possibility and allows for an indefinite period of incarceration for offenders labeled as sexual predators too dangerous to re-enter society after serving time in prison. As in criminal matters, defendants that qualify for civil commitment under the act are entitled to be represented by any Miami criminal lawyer of their choice. If a defendant cannot afford to retain a private criminal attorney, the Public Defender's Office will appoint a lawyer to defend the case. Defendants that are found to pose a danger to society upon their release by a jury are sent to the Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia, Florida for an indefinite period of time.

Recently, a Miami-Dade County circuit court judge overruled a jury who decided that civil commitment was not appropriate. Juan Vega served 25 years in prison for several sexually motivated offenses such as sexual battery and kidnapping. Despite serving his sentence, Vega was held until a jury could determine whether or not he posed a threat to society upon being released from prison. Defendants sought to be held beyond their release date are entitled to a jury trial. In Vega's case, the jury decided that he would no longer pose a threat and decided against civil commitment. Vega's case is unusual because the judge disregarded the jury's verdict and decided that civil commitment was appropriate despite the finding.

The judge's ruling has angered criminal defense lawyers in Miami. It is the first time a circuit court judge in the State of Florida ordered civil commitment of a convicted sexual predator over a jury's non-commitment verdict. Now Vega's fate will be determined by an appellate court, most likely the 3rd District Court of Appeals. What caused the judge to overrule the jury? Apparently, the judge relied heavily on psychologists that evaluated Vega and found that there is a significant likelihood that he would re-offend if released from custody. Hundreds of Jimmy Ryce cases have been tried in the state. The majority of offenders have been committed, but some have prevailed. Of those released, some have become productive members of society, while others have re-offended and are spending the rest of their lives in prison.

Pursuant to the Jimmy Ryce Act, there are approximately 569 individuals being held in Arcadia in what is deemed to be civil confinement. Another 97 inmates in the state are awaiting the same type of trial that Vega just sat through. In Jimmy Ryce cases, the Florida Department of Children and Families evaluates all sexual predators set to be released from Florida prisons. If civil commitment is found to be appropriate for a particular defendant, he or she will be transferred to Arcadia, Florida pending a civil trial. After hearing testimony, a jury of six people must decide unanimously whether a defendant is a sexual violent predator who merits civil commitment by clear and convincing evidence for involuntary commitment to occur. If a majority feel commitment is appropriate, a judge will declare a mistrial and prosecutors can re-try the defendant. If the verdict is even or less than half decide that commitment is appropriate, the defendant should be released from custody.

Florida Judge's Decision in Sexual Predator Case Sparks Controversy, Bradenton Herald, March 4, 2013.