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Sex offender not eligible for release after serving prison sentence, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | January 24, 2024

Stewart Schuman completed a prison sentence for sex crimes in 2012. But in the decade since, Shuman, who is now 69 years old, has been confined in a sex-offender treatment unit in the Cherokee Mental Health Institute following his civil commitment as a sexually violent predator.

In 2022 the Story County District Court ruled that Schuman was eligible for transitional release from the Cherokee unit following a hearing in which Schuman and two expert witnesses testified regarding his fitness for transitional release. The State appealed the trial court ruling, arguing Schuman did not meet the requirements set out in Iowa Code Chapter 229A.8A.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed in a Jan. 19 decision written by Justice Thomas Waterman joined by all justices except Justice Edward Mansfield, who filed a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part from the majority opinion.

The civil commitment statute requires that treatment staff at the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders (CCUSO) must approve the applicant’s “relapse prevention plan” (RPP) before the applicant is eligible for transitional release. In this case, the treatment staff had not approved Schuman’s proposed relapse prevention plan.

The district court, however, concluded that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Schuman was not suitable for transitional release. In reversing that ruling, the Supreme court said the trial court erred in substituting its judgment for that of the CCUSO staff, which never approved Schuman’s proposed relapse prevention plan.

“Under its plain language, an offender is ineligible for transitional release without an RPP accepted by the treatment provider,” Justice Waterman wrote. “The record in this case is clear: No treatment provider accepted Schuman’s RPP.” And the Supreme Court agreed with the State that the district court lacked statutory authority to approve an RPP that a treatment provider never accepted. The Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for writ of certiorari and vacated the district court’s ruling.

Writing separately, Justice Mansfield agreed with the majority that the district court erred in substituting its own evaluation of Schuman’s relapse prevention plan over that of the CCUSO staff, but he wrote, “I find the State’s conduct problematic in this case, and I would remand for further proceedings on Schuman’s request for transitional release.”

The CCUSO treatment staff never approved Schuman’s proposed relapse prevention plan, Justice Mansfield wrote, because they never read it. And that is because Schuman had not achieved the necessary status in the treatment program for his proposed RPP to even be considered.

“If that was a sufficient reason [for not approving the RPP],” the Story County district court wrote, “the concept of judicial review would be defeated and this trial would have been a waste of time.”

Unlike the majority, Mansfield did not completely disagree with the district court’s reasoning.

“The State consented to a final hearing, which meant that Schuman had rebutted the presumption of continued confinement and presented enough for a reasonable person to conclude a final hearing should be held on whether the offender is suitable for transitional release,” Justice Mansfield wrote. “But transitional release requires an accepted RPP, and three and half months later the treatment provider hadn’t even looked at Schuman’s RPP. That can’t be the end of the story.”

While the trial record was too thin to justify the district court substituting its own judgment for the CCUSO staff’s on Schuman’s suitability for transitional release, Justice Mansfield said he would remand the case to give the State an opportunity to supplement the record with testimony from the CCUSO treatment provider regarding whether Schuman’s proposed RPP is appropriate.

If the treatment provider is able to cite a non-arbitrary reason for not accepting the plan, Schuman would be ineligible for transitional release, but he would be eligible if the treatment provider cannot provide a reasonable basis for refusing to accept the plan.

“Usually, we don’t allow do-overs,” Justice Mansfield wrote, “but in this case Schuman has less of a liberty interest than usual because he is not seeking outright release, which he recognizes he is not ready for. Schuman does have a legitimate interest in not being subjected to arbitrary government conduct.”

 

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