IMO the Commitment of R.S.Annotate this Case
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
IMO the Commitment of R.S. (A-18-01)
Argued January 28, 2002 -- Decided July 11, 2002
This appeal, a companion case to IMO the Commitment of W.Z., N.J. (2002), concerns the admissibility and use of actuarial risk assessment instruments by experts who testify in commitment proceedings under the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA or Act), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 to 27.38. The issue was raised in W.Z. as well, but is addressed by the Court in this case.
Because the Court affirms the decision of the Appellate Division substantially for the reasons expressed by Judge King in that court s opinion and has added only brief additional remarks, the history and facts presented here are derived from the decision of the Appellate Division, IMO the Commitment of R.S., 339 N.J. Super. 507 (App. Div. 2001).
R.S., a man in his early thirties, has a history of sexual assault on prepubescent boys, which began when he was twenty-two. Following the completion of R.S. s sentences at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center (ADTC) in 1999, the State immediately petitioned for his commitment pursuant to the SVPA. Pending a final hearing on the State s application, R.S. was temporarily committed as provided for by the Act.
At the final commitment hearing before a judge, the State presented testimony by a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Both recommended that R.S. be committed for confinement, care, and treatment as a sexual predator. The recommendation of the psychologist was based in part on the results of actuarial assessments bearing on R.S. s risk of recidivism.
R.S. objected to the use of actuarial instruments, so the court conducted a five-day evidentiary hearing regarding the admissibility and use of these risk assessment tools. Both sides presented expert witnesses.
Following the hearing, the court ruled that actuarial instruments were admissible because they assisted the court and satisfied the requirements of reliability. The court considered the results of the actuarial assessments along with the other evidence adduced at the hearing and concluded that R.S. posed a threat to the community because he had a mental abnormality that predisposed him to commit sexually violent acts. R.S. was committed to the State s Special Offenders Unit at the Northern Regional Unit in Kearny.
On appeal, R.S. raised only the issue of the admissibility of the actuarial assessment instruments. In its review of the admissibility questions the Appellate Division applied a de novo review standard to evaluate whether the actuarial instruments met the requirements of Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923). Evaluating the first of the assessment tools used, the RRAS, the Appellate Division pointed out that the Supreme Court recently had found that instrument to be a reliable tool to assist a court in assessing offender dangerousness in Megan s Law tier hearings. The issues to be resolved in SVPA proceedings being similar to the Megan s Law issues, the court found the RRAS to be admissible under the Megan s Law precedents. Because the experts had testified that the RRAS was the least widely used and the least experimentally supported, the court concluded that if the RRAS is admissible, the other actuarial devices also would be admissible.
The court also examined whether risk assessment instruments are admissible under N.J.R.E. 702. The court found the State to have established that the use of actuarial instruments is generally accepted by professionals who evaluate sex offenders for the risk of reoffense. Further, all the experts who testified agreed that such instruments are reliable to a least a certain degree in foretelling future dangerousness. In light of the general acceptance and use of the instruments and considering that in SVPA commitment proceedings a judge and not a jury will make the ultimate decision after giving all the evidence the weight it deserves, the Appellate Division found actuarial assessments admissible under N.J.R.E. 702.
Finally, the court found that the courts of at least six other states had accepted the use of actuarial instruments and that there is support in scientific literature, professional workshops, and on the Internet for their use.
In addition to affirming the trial court s conclusion that actuarial instruments satisfied the Frye test and are admissible in SVPA proceedings, the court affirmed the determination to commit R.S. pursuant to N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.26.
HELD: The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed in the opinion of Judge King. Actuarial risk assessment instruments are admissible and may be used at civil commitment proceedings under the Sexually Violent Predator Act as a factor in the overall prediction process.
1. The Frye admissibility standard is applicable because of the significant liberty interest at stake. A party is not required to show that the relevant community is unanimous in its acceptance in order to satisfy Frye, but there must be an assurance of reliability. (p.2).
2. Clinicians in the field of sex offender assessments generally support the use of actuarial instruments in the evaluation process but do not support reliance on those instruments alone. (p.3)
3. An actuarial tool may be used in an SVPA proceeding by a testifying expert to explain in part the basis for the expert s conclusion regarding the risk of reoffense. (p.3).
4. The Court anticipates that a trial court will treat actuarial assessment information as a factor to consider, weigh, or even reject when conducting the factfinding in an SVPA proceeding. (p.4).
JUDGMENT of the Appellate Division is AFFFIRMED.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA and ZAZZALI join in this opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO did not participate.
SUPREME COURT OF NEW JERSEY
A- 18 September Term 2001
IN THE MATTER OF THE
COMMITMENT OF R.S.
Argued January 28, 2002 Decided July 11, 2002
On Certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 339 N.J. Super. 507 (2001).
William F. Culleton, Deputy Public Defender, argued the cause for appellant R.S. (Peter A. Garcia, Acting Public Defender, attorney).
Nancy Kaplen, Assistant Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent State of New Jersey (Peter C. Harvey, Acting Attorney General, attorney; Ms. Kaplen and Allison E. Accurso, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Mary Beth Wood, Deputy Attorney General, on the brief).
This case, like its companion, IMO Commitment of W.Z., ___ N.J. ___ (2002), also decided today, involves application of the New Jersey Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA or Act), N.J.S.A. 30:4-27.24 to 27.38. In this case, R.S. challenges the State s use of actuarial risk assessment instruments by experts testifying in commitment proceedings under the Act. All arguments against the admissibility and use of such instruments were consolidated in this proceeding. We affirm the decision of the Appellate Division upholding the admissibility and use of actuarial [risk assessment] instruments at SVPA hearings as a factor in the overall prediction process substantially for the reasons expressed in the thorough and persuasive opinion by Judge King. IMO Commitment of R.S., 339 N.J. Super. 507, 534 (App. Div. 2001). We add only the following.
We have no doubt that a testifying psychologist or psychiatrist may refer to actuarial risk assessment instruments used in the formation of the expert s opinion. As the Appellate Division noted in applying the standard set forth in Frye v. United States, F. 1013, 1014 (D.C. Cir. 1923), the use of actuarial instruments in the assessment process has gained general acceptance. IMO Commitment of R.S., supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 538. We resort here to the Frye standard because of the significant liberty interest at stake. When seeking to satisfy that standard, however, a party need not show unanimous acceptance by the relevant community. State v. Harvey, 151 N.J. 117, 171 (1997). It is reliability that must be assured. IMO Commitment of R.S., supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 539 (citing State v. Cavallo, 88 N.J. 508, 518 (1982), and noting that context of the proceedings determines whether reasonable reliability exists).
Although there are critics who challenge the validity and predictability of actuarial instruments in sex offender assessments, the record expert testimony and scientific literature demonstrates that clinicians specializing in sex offender assessments generally support the use of actuarial instruments in the overall assessment process even though they do not support reliance on the actuarial instruments alone. IMO Commitment of R.S., supra, 339 N.J. Super. at 538. As the Appellate Division summarized:
The extensive expert testimony in this matter concerning validation studies, cross-validation studies, reliability studies, correlation coefficients, and clinically-derived factors attests to . . . reliability in this context, where the actuarials are not used as the sole or free-standing determinants for civil commitment. They are not litmus tests. There is no requirement that the actuarial instruments be the best methods which could ever be devised to determine risk of recidivism. What is required is that they produce results which are reasonably reliable for their intended purpose.
[Id. at 539 (citation omitted).]
We conclude, as did the courts below, that actuarial risk assessment instruments may be admissible in evidence in a civil commitment proceeding under the SVPA when such tools are used in the formation of the basis for a testifying expert s opinion concerning the future dangerousness of a sex offender. The testifying expert shall be permitted to refer to such instruments in explaining how he or she reached a conclusion concerning an individual s risk assessment. In so holding, we acknowledge that a testifying expert now may rely on actuarial as well as clinical information when formulating an opinion concerning future dangerousness. We anticipate that the trial court will regard the actuarial assessment information, as did Judge Freedman below, as simply a factor to consider, weigh, or even reject, when engaging in the necessary factfinding under the SVPA. Id. at 538-40.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is affirmed.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES STEIN, COLEMAN, LONG, LaVECCHIA, and ZAZZALI join in this opinion. JUSTICE VERNIERO did not participate.
NO. A-18 SEPTEMBER TERM 2001
ON CERTIFICATION TO Appellate Division, Superior Court
IN THE MATTER OF THE
COMMITMENT OF R.S.
DECIDED July 11, 2002
Chief Justice Poritz PRESIDING
OPINION BY Per Curiam
CONCURRING OPINION BY
DISSENTING OPINION BY
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ X
JUSTICE STEIN X
JUSTICE COLEMAN X
JUSTICE LONG X
JUSTICE VERNIERO -------------------
---------- -------- JUSTICE LaVECCHIA X
JUSTICE ZAZZALI X