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In re S.T.S.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

August 15, 2013


Appeal from the Dispositional Order Entered July 23, 2012, In the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, Juvenile Division, at No. 965-J-2008.




Appellant, S.T.S., Jr., appeals from the order entered July 23, 2012, which granted the Commonwealth's request for involuntary commitment. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

Appellant was born in January of 1992. He has had a very complicated and tragic childhood. Appellant's problems have involved using alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and heroin. He has also had multiple involvements with authorities regarding violent behavior and mental health issues. At one point in 2006, he took a knife to school and threatened to kill a classmate. In addition, Appellant has admitted to having sexual contact with male and female relatives, as well as to the sexual assault of a fourteen-year-old female friend. In 2006, he was adjudicated delinquent on one count of indecent assault and put in placement.

In October of 2011, proceedings were commenced under the Court-Ordered Involuntary Treatment of Certain Sexually Violent Persons Statute ("Act 21"), 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 6401-6409.[1] Pursuant to Act 21, certain redacted documents were sent to the State Sex Offender Assessment Board ("the SOAB"). Various specialists testified regarding whether Appellant suffered from mental abnormalities requiring involuntary treatment. The trial court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that Appellant has a mental abnormality/personality disorder, which results in difficulty controlling sexually violent behavior and makes it likely he will engage in acts of sexual violence. Pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6403(d), the trial court committed Appellant for a period of one year to the sexual responsibility treatment program at a facility designated by the Commonwealth, Department of Public Welfare. This appeal followed.

Appellant presents the following issues for our review, which we reproduce verbatim:

I. Did the lower court err in denying S.T.S., Jr.'s request to dismiss the Act 21 proceedings as S.T.S., Jr. was not in placement pursuant to a 42 Pa.C.S. §6352 disposition of an enumerated offense but, instead, for a violation of probation?
II. Did the trial court err in refusing to redact certain documents and statements reviewed by the Sex Offender Assessment Board as they contained communication made by S.T.S., Jr. to a psychiatrist or psychologist, or a member of their treatment team, for the purpose of treatment and thus subject to the 42 Pa.C.S. §5944 privilege?
III. Did the trial court err in finding that there was clear and convincing evidence that S.T.S., Jr. has a mental abnormality or personality disorder which results in serious difficulty in controlling sexually violent behavior that makes S.T.S., Jr. likely to engage in an act of sexual violence, thus meeting the criteria for civil commitment pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. §6403(d), as there was neither clear and convincing evidence to support the diagnoses of the Commonwealth's expert nor to support a finding that S.T.S., Jr. would likely commit an act of sexual violence?
IV. Is Act 21 unconstitutional as it violates the guarantee of due process provided in both the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as it requires those with juvenile sex offenses to choose either to comply with treatment and provide incriminating information that will be used against him or not to comply and risk being held for an Act 21 offense up until the time he becomes eligible to be committed under the act?
V. Is Act 21 unconstitutional as it is a denial of equal protection guaranteed under the Constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as it impinges upon the fundamental right to be free from confinement and is not narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest?

Appellant's Brief at 5.

In his first issue on appeal, Appellant argues that he cannot be subject to Act 21 because, at the time of his twentieth birthday, he was not in placement pursuant to a section 6352 disposition for an enumerated offense. Appellant contends he was never placed in connection with his adjudication for indecent assault, an enumerated offense, but was in placement for probation violations at the time of his twentieth birthday.[2]

In In the Interest of K.A.P., Jr., 916 A.2d 1152 (Pa. Super. 2007), we addressed a similar issue[3] and we stated our standard of review as follows:

Appellant's argument is one of statutory interpretation. Our Supreme Court recently set forth the relevant principles of statutory construction, and our standard of review, as follows:
Because the present claim raises an issue of statutory construction, this Court's standard of review is plenary. See Hazleton Area School Dist. v. Zoning Hearing Bd., 566 Pa. 180, 778 A.2d 1205, 1210 (Pa. 2001). Our task is guided by the sound and settled principles set forth in the Statutory Construction Act, including the primary maxim that the object of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate legislative intent. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a); see also Commonwealth v. MacPherson, 561 Pa. 571, 752 A.2d 384, 391 (Pa. 2000). In pursuing that end, we are mindful that "when the words of a statute are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of it is not to be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing its spirit." 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(b). Indeed, "as a general rule, the best indication of legislative intent is the plain language of a statute." See Bradley, 834 A.2d at 1132 (citing Commonwealth v. Gilmore Mfg. Co., 573 Pa. 143, 822 A.2d 676, 679 (Pa. 2003)). In reading the plain language, "words and phrases shall be construed according to rules of grammar and according to their common and approved usage, " while any words or phrases that have acquired a "peculiar and appropriate meaning" must be construed according to that meaning. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1903(a). However, when interpreting non-explicit statutory text, legislative intent may be gleaned from a variety of factors, including, inter alia: the occasion and necessity for the statute; the mischief to be remedied; the object to be attained; the consequences of a particular interpretation; and the contemporaneous legislative history. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(c). Moreover, while statutes generally should be construed liberally, penal statutes are always to be construed strictly, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(b)(1), and any ambiguity in a penal statute should be interpreted in favor of the defendant. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Driscoll, 485 Pa. 99, 401 A.2d 312, 316 (Pa. 1979).
Notwithstanding the primacy of the plain meaning doctrine as best representative of legislative intent, the rules of construction offer several important qualifying precepts. For instance, the Statutory Construction Act also states that, in ascertaining legislative intent, courts may apply, inter alia, the following presumptions: that the legislature does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution, or unreasonable; and that the legislature intends the entire statute to be effective and certain. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1922(1), (2). Most importantly, the General Assembly has made clear that the rules of construction are not to be applied where they would result in a construction inconsistent with the manifest intent of the General Assembly. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1901.

Commonwealth v. Shiffler, 583 Pa. 478, 484-486, 879 A.2d 185, 189-190 (Pa. 2005). K.A.P., Jr.. 916 A.2d at 1155-1156.

We begin our analysis with an overview of the statutes at issue. Section 6352 of the Juvenile Act provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

§ 6352. Disposition of delinquent child
(a) General rule.―If the child is found to be a delinquent child the court may make any of the following orders of disposition determined to be consistent with the protection of the public interest and best suited to the child's treatment, supervision, rehabilitation, and welfare, which disposition shall, as appropriate to the individual circumstances of the child's case, provide balanced attention to the protection of the community, the imposition of accountability for offenses committed and the development of competencies to enable the child to become a responsible and productive member of the community:
(2) Placing the child on probation under supervision of the probation officer of the court . . ., under conditions and limitations the court prescribes.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6352(a)(2).

A child who has been adjudicated delinquent for certain acts of sexual violence and committed pursuant to section 6352, and who remains committed upon attaining twenty years of age, is subject to assessment by the SOAB pursuant to section 6358, as follows:

§ 6358. Assessment of delinquent children by the State Sexual Offenders Assessment Board
(a) General rule.--A child who has been found to be delinquent for an act of sexual violence which if committed by an adult would be a violation of 18 Pa.C.S. § 3121 (relating to rape), 3123 (relating to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse), 3124.1 (relating to sexual assault), 3125 (relating to aggravated indecent assault), 3126 (relating to indecent assault) or 4302 (relating to incest) who is committed to an institution or other facility pursuant to section 6352 (relating to disposition of delinquent child) and who remains in such facility upon attaining 20 years of age shall be subject to an assessment by the board.
(b) Duty of probation officer.--Ninety days prior to the 20th birthday of the child, the probation officer shall have the duty to notify the board of the status of the delinquent child and the institution or other facility where the child is presently committed. The probation officer shall assist the board in obtaining access to the child and any information required by the board to perform the assessment, including, but not limited to, the child's official court record and complete juvenile probation file.
(c) Assessment.--The board shall conduct an assessment, which shall include the board's determination of whether or not the child is in need of commitment for involuntary treatment due to a mental abnormality as defined in section 6402 (relating to definitions) or a personality disorder, either of which results in serious difficulty in controlling sexually violent behavior. Upon the completion of the assessment pursuant to this section, the board shall provide the assessment to the court. . . .
(d) Duty of court.--The court shall provide a copy of the assessment by the board to the probation officer, the district attorney, county solicitor or designee and the child's attorney.
(e) Dispositional review hearing.--Where the board has concluded that the child is in need of involuntary treatment pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 64 (relating to court ordered involuntary treatment of certain sexually violent persons), the court shall conduct a hearing at which the county solicitor or a designee, the probation officer and the child's attorney are present. The court shall consider the assessment, treatment information and any other relevant information regarding the delinquent child at the dispositional review hearing pursuant to section 6353 (relating to limitation on and change in place of commitment), which shall be held no later than 180 days before the 21st birthday of the child. . . .
(f) Subsequent proceeding.--If, at the conclusion of the dispositional review hearing required in subsection (e), the court finds there is a prima facie case that the child is in need of involuntary treatment under the provisions of Chapter 64, the court shall direct that the county solicitor or a designee file a petition to initiate proceedings under the provisions of that chapter.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6358.

Chapter 64 controls the civil commitment of sexually violent children assessed to be in need of involuntary treatment pursuant to section 6358. Section 6401 provides as follows:

6401. Scope of Chapter
This chapter establishes rights and procedures for the civil commitment of sexually violent delinquent children who, due to a mental abnormality or personality disorder, have serious difficulty in controlling sexually violent behavior and thereby pose a danger to the public and further provides for additional periods of commitment for involuntary treatment for said persons.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 6401.

The procedures to be followed are detailed in subsequent sections of the Act, as follows:

§ 6403. Court-ordered involuntary treatment
(a) Persons subject to involuntary treatment.—A person may be subject to court ordered commitment for involuntary treatment ...

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