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Court says Minnesota sex offender law OK

Minnesota state Sen. Tony Lourey said on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, that he is glad a federal appeals court overturned a ruling that had held a state sex offender law unconstitutional. With him is Gov. Mark Dayton at a health insurance news conference. . (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL — Minnesota let out a sigh of relief Tuesday, Jan. 3, after a federal appeals court decided a lower court erred in tossing out a state law that put some of the worst sex offenders in prison-like facilities after they complete their sentences.

Had the original ruling stood, the state would have scrambled to release many of the 700 sex offenders now confined in state hospitals. The ruling basically returns state law as it was before the Twin Cities-based federal judge declared it unconstitutional.

"One of the problems we have is we don't have alternative placements for them," Gov. Mark Dayton said. "That is expensive."

The governor said the ruling allows Minnesota to proceed at a pace that allows officials to better afford and manage changes.

The ruling "does not mean that we just go back to letting people be locked up over their lifetimes," Dayton said.

State law allows indefinite detention of some of the most violent sex offenders. Differing from the local judge, the appeals court judges said they found no "egregious, malicious or sadistic" treatment.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said had the original ruling held, it would have put a severe financial strain on the state.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson said she agrees with the appeals court. "Minnesota's sex offender civil commitment law is vital to protect the public from some of the state's most dangerous sex offenders."

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he was pleased with the court's decision.

The House, he said, had submitted a legal brief in support of overturning the case.

"It was good news for us this morning," he said following the House swearing-in ceremony Tuesday. "The program as Minnesota has it is constitutional and we'll be able to continue with that. I think it provides a little stability that we won't have to tackle that issue this session, so it's good news."

The decision reverses a Minnesota-based federal judge's 2015 ruling that the practice was unconstitutional because it, in effect, extended prison sentences forever. However, the three-judge panel said the program is needed to protect Minnesotans.

Six people of the approximately 700 sex offenders have been released from the program.

Dayton said that he soon will propose funding facilities for sex offenders who are released from the programs in St. Peter and Moose Lake state hospitals.

The state does not have places for sex offenders to stay, and with the Tuesday ruling the urgency of paying for more facilities likely will lose some steam.

Offenders who brought the suit could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue of keeping sex offenders locked up hit the spotlight after Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot Nov. 22, 2003. Her body was found the next spring in northwestern Minnesota.

The man convicted in her death, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., had just been released from his sex offense sentence when the kidnapping occurred.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.