Roger Alan Giese was out on bond and preparing to stand trial in California when he vanished. It was March 2007—about three years after he was charged in connection with the sexual abuse of a young boy he had met through his work as a voice coach with the All-American Boys Chorus in Orange County. The abuse was alleged to have started in May 1998, after Giese moved into a house with the boy and his parents, and continued for several years.
After Giese jumped bail, he fled to England, where, according to an investigation by the Daily Mirror, he established a life under an assumed identity, eventually starting a successful PR company. After U.S. authorities tracked Giese down, they asked the British government to arrest and extradite him so that he could be prosecuted—a routine step in the process of bringing international fugitives to justice. Giese, who is now 40 years old, was captured on June 4, 2014. Then something surprising happened.
Instead of swiftly turning Giese over to American authorities so that he could stand trial for his alleged crimes, a British district judge denied the U.S. government’s extradition request. That was in April; six months later, on Oct. 7, two more judges, this time from the U.K.’s High Court, upheld the ruling. Their reason for doing so: Sending Giese back to California could result in a “flagrant” violation of his human rights because of a little-known American practice known as civil commitment.
Civil commitment—which exists in 20 states, including California—allows for the indefinite detention of people who have served out prison sentences for sex offenses but have been deemed by state-appointed medical experts to be sexually violent predators who are likely to commit crimes in the future.
The putative purpose of civil commitment is to keep individuals who are considered mentally ill and sexually dangerous from rejoining society until they have been treated for their urges. According to a recent survey, there are approximately 5,000 people currently locked up in civil commitment programs around the country; first introduced in the 1980s after a series of high-profile sex crimes stoked fears about sex offenders, civil commitment programs have recently been declared unconstitutional by federal judges in Missouri and Minnesota.
The British judges who have been handling the request for Giese’s extradition aren’t worried about the U.S. Constitution, of course. Rather, they are basing their reasoning on a document called the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that was implemented in 1953 and sets forth strict standards for when people can be deprived of their liberty.
Article 5 of the convention specifies that an individual of “unsound mind” can be legitimately detained. But in the British High Court’s analysis—which you can read in full here—California’s approach to civil commitment revolves around a definition of mental illness that is overly broad, and thus represents a “flagrant denial” of the rights guaranteed by the human rights treaty. The fact that there is a “real risk” that Giese would be subjected to civil commitment if he is found guilty in California, according to the High Court, means that the extradition process cannot be allowed to proceed.
Giese’s case marks the third time an extradition request by the U.S. has been denied by U.K. judges on the grounds that civil commitment for sex offenders represents a violation of human rights. The first case involved a Minnesota man named Shawn Sullivan who was accused of molesting two 11-year-old girls and raping a 14-year-old; he was allowed to continue living in the U.K. thanks to a ruling from the High Court in 2012. (A spokesman for the Minnesota prosecutor’s office that was pursuing Sullivan said investigators had stopped following the case after their extradition request was blocked; as far as anyone in the office knows, Sullivan remains free.) More recently, a district judge ruled to block the extradition of Tobias Bowen, a doctor from Liberia who stands accused of child rape in New York state. While the High Court overturned that ruling in May, on the basis that civil commitment in New York involves a definition of mental illness that is narrow enough to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, Bowen remains in the U.K. pending the outcome of the continuing appeals process.
Taken together, the three cases amount to a striking referendum on the practice of civil commitment. The fact that the crimes under discussion in all three situations are so repugnant only underscores the moral principles at stake. It also connects the cases to an established tradition of European judges blocking the extradition of American suspects facing the death penalty in the U.S. (According to Geoff Gilbert, a professor in the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, European judges have also objected to American extradition requests for suspects facing the possibility of long-term solitary confinement.)
The judges who ruled on Giese’s case earlier this month based their decision in part on testimony from experts on civil commitment practices in California. One of the experts, a public defender, told the court that California state law allows for an individual to be civilly committed just because he does not “think correctly.” “It can include severe mental disorder but it can also be people who just make the wrong decisions,” the public defender was quoted as saying in the High Court’s decision.
After going over that testimony, the High Court judges concluded that the California medical professionals tasked with identifying “sexually violent predators” who are likely to commit future crimes have a “great deal of latitude” in making their determinations. That latitude, the judges ruled, allows for the possibility that Giese would be civilly committed based only on the belief that he has a vaguely defined “antisocial behavior disorder.”
“In our view indeterminate detention on that basis would … amount to a complete denial of his … rights,” the judges wrote, “because such a ‘mental disorder’ cannot be said to warrant the draconian step of compulsory confinement for an indefinite period.”
In its ruling, the court gave the U.S. officials 14 days to decide whether they were willing to guarantee that Giese, if convicted, would not face civil commitment. That period ended Wednesday morning, but at a hearing in London, the U.S. government received an extension of three weeks to consider its options.