People v. Superior Court of Santa Cruz County, No. H049691 (Cal. Ct. App. 2023)
Nature of Case: The Santa Cruz County District Attorney petitions for a writ of mandate directing the superior court to vacate its order conditionally releasing, Michael Thomas Cheek, an individual considered a “sexually violent predator” under the Sexually Violent Predators Act (“SVPA”), to a residence in Santa Cruz County.
The SVPA allows for involuntary commitment of individuals who have been convicted of certain sex crimes. In 2019, the superior court found Cheek would not endanger the community and could be adequately supervised in a less restrictive setting, making him eligible for conditional release. The agency that manages the conditional release program, spent over a year to identify a site where it believed Cheek could live. After receiving the recommendation for Cheek’s placement at the Santa Cruz County site, the superior court ordered in July 2021 that the Department of State Hospitals notify the surrounding community of the pending release decision, as required by statute. The notice prompted a significant community response, with hundreds of residents sending letters to the court urging against the placement.
In November 2021, the district attorney provided additional information to the court in opposition to the placement, arguing that the order is contrary to law because Cheek would be placed within a quarter mile of a newly established “school,” something expressly prohibited by statute.
The superior court found the statute would not prohibit the proposed placement because the school in question is a private home school that did not exist until after the community was notified of Cheek’s pending release—suggesting the school was created for the very purpose of preventing placement in that area.
Holding: The Court of Appeals concluded that, although the concerns raised by the lower court were not unreasonable, the Sexually Violent Predator Act prohibiting placement of certain individuals near a school does not exempt home schools or require the school to have been operating for any particular time. For those reasons, the Court of Appeals issued a peremptory writ of mandate directing the superior court to vacate its placement order.