Florida high court justices order hearing in sex offender case

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court on Friday ordered a hearing within 60 days on a sex offender’s claim he’s been illegally detained for eight years without a civil commitment trial as required by state law.

The 4-3 decision came in response to a request from an appellate court, which indicated Ronald Morel may be just one of many sex offenders being detained without trial.

The majority wrote that the case presents “serious questions as to the functioning of our system for civil commitments and the legality of Morel’s continued detention.”

Morel has been held in the state’s civil commitment center for sex offenders near Arcadia since completing a prison sentence in 2002. He had been convicted in Broward County of kidnapping and raping a Boca Raton woman after she’d asked him for a ride.

Florida’s Jimmy Ryce Act, named for a 9-year-old boy who was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Miami-Dade County, lets the state detain and treat sex offenders after they’ve served their sentences. They can be released only if a judge finds they no longer are a danger to society.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland asked the Supreme Court to unravel a series of legal issues affecting sex offenders at the facility operated by GEO Group, a private prison and security firm, under contract with the state Department of Children and Families.

The law requires civil trials within 30 days after an offender is detained, but they often waive that right so they’ll have more time to obtain expert witnesses and evidence to challenge their commitment. The appeal judges noted that cases then tend to remain on hold for years.

“This case is an extreme example, but from our anecdotal experience, it is not unique,” they wrote.

The state contends Morel is to blame for the trial’s delay because wants to avoid taking a polygraph test and discussing his acquittal on a murder charge related to a fire.

Another problem is that trials are held in jurisdictions where offenders were convicted, often hundreds of miles from Arcadia in southwest Florida.

The appeal judges, whose district includes Arcadia, concluded they were powerless to rule in Morel’s case because Broward is in another appellate district.

The justices ordered that a Broward judge hold the hearing to consider issues Morel raised in his 2nd District case as well as another appeal he filed directly with the Supreme Court. Morel filed both cases without assistance from a lawyer.

The high court wants the hearing to answer questions that include whether Morel was denied treatment due to his pretrial detainee status and if his commitment was illegal. The justices also want to know why the case has taken so long, whether Morel has had legal counsel and if not, why.

Chief Justice Charles Canady dissented, writing that he saw no impediment to the 2nd District dealing with those issues.

In a separate dissent, Justice R. Fred Lewis wrote that he agreed with ordering a hearing but that it should be conducted “without limitation” by the Broward judge already assigned to Morel’s civil commitment trial. Justice Ricky Polston concurred with Lewis.