A 5-2 Supreme Court in Needham v. Superior Court yesterday held that, in seeking an involuntary civil commitment under the Sexually Violent Predator Act of a person after their prison term ends, “the People may call their retained expert to testify at trial, both to contest the testimony of other witnesses and to offer an independent opinion as to whether the defendant qualifies as an SVP.” But, the court also concluded, the expert “may not compel a defendant to be interviewed or participate in testing before trial”; that precommitment evaluation is done only by an evaluator appointed by the Department of State Hospitals.

The court’s opinion by Justice Carol Corrigan interprets a statutory scheme the court says creates “a highly structured process” that “aims to balance the rights of a proposed conservatee, the need to protect public safety and provide treatment, and the goal of properly litigating a commitment proceeding.”

Justice Joshua Groban, joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, agreed a prosecution-retained expert can’t conduct a precommitment evaluation, but disagreed with the conclusion that the expert can testify. Calling the commitment of a person for a crime they might commit in the future “an extraordinary deprivation of liberty” and saying the “majority’s decision undermines the SVPA’s carefully calibrated procedural safeguards,” Justice Groban pointed to the fact that “the SVPA provides in painstaking detail who should assess the defendant and how that assessment should be done, [but] says nothing about permitting the People to retain their own testifying expert.”

The court reversed the 2-1 published opinion of the Fourth District, Division Three, Court of Appeal. It also disapproved the same appellate court’s decision in People v. Landau (2013) 214 Cal.App.4th 1, to the extent it held a prosecution-retained expert could examine a defendant, and the Third District’s opinion in People v. Sloan (2023) 93 Cal.App.5th 698, which held a retained expert couldn’t testify. The Supreme Court denied the defendant’s petition for review in Landau. Sloan is a grant-and-hold for yesterday’s opinion.

Related:

Cleaning up the Legislature’s mess, Supreme Court opens sexually violent predator treatment records for district attorney use