By Eric Jones

On March 16, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Matherly v. Andrews.  Thomas Shane Matherly was appealing the district court’s order granting summary judgment for the government on his petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  The Circuit held that a genuine question of fact remained regarding the precise date and time that Matherly was released from Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) custody, and remanded to develop the record further.

The Child Pornography Conviction and Prison Sentence

In October 2003, Matherly pled guilty to one count of possession of child pornography, and was ultimately sentenced to spend 47 months in prison.  With “good time” credit, available under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b), Matherly received up to 54 days per year credited towards his sentence.  With that credit, Matherly was eligible for release on November 23, 2006.  November 23, 2006 was in fact Thanksgiving day, however, and 18 U.S.C. § 3624(a) provides that if “the date for a prisoner’s release falls on a Saturday, a Sunday, or a legal holiday at the place of confinement, the prisoner may be released by the Bureau on the last preceding weekday.”  The BOP thus decided to exercise their discretion, and released Matherly one day early, on November 22, to supervised release.

The Adam Walsh Act

The Adam Walsh Act, 18 U.S.C. § 4248(a), authorizes the civil confinement of “sexually dangerous person[s]” who are “in the custody” of the BOP.  To begin the proceedings, a certification is filed in district court that the individual is a sexually dangerous person, and the inmate’s release is automatically stayed pending a hearing.  A sexually dangerous person is defined as “a person who has engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation and who is sexually dangerous to others,” and a person who is “sexually dangerous to others” means “the person suffers from a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder as a result of which he would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released.”  Upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence that the person is a sexually dangerous person, the court shall commit the inmate to the custody of the Attorney General, either for release to a state civil commitment system or to a federal facility until it is determined that they are no longer sexually dangerous.

The Civil Commitment Proceedings

Matherly, scheduled to be released at 8:00am on November 22, 2006, was in fact released at 9:20am that day.  At 10:08am, the Adam Walsh certificate was filed to stay his release.  During the proceedings, Matherly conceded that he had engaged in child molestation and suffered from a serious mental disorder.  Following an evidentiary hearing, the court found that Matherly would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if released, and ordered that he be committed.

Matherly filed a pro se petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing that the Adam Walsh Act had been improperly applied retroactively to him because it did not become effective until after his confinement had begun, and additionally argued that he was not “in the custody” of the BOP at the time the certificate was filed.  The district court granted summary judgment for the government, and Matherly timely appealed.  Matherly was appointed counsel on appeal.

The Adam Walsh Act Was Not Retroactively Applied

The Fourth Circuit began by explaining that the Adam Walsh commitment proceedings were civil, not criminal, in nature and were not punishment for prior criminal offenses.  Furthermore, the Circuit held that “Congress sufficiently expressed its intent that the Adam Walsh Act apply to all persons in the BOP’s custody who would pose a current threat to the public if released.”  Because there was nothing in the statute to indicate that Congress intended to create anything other than a civil commitment scheme designed to protect the public from a present threat of harm, there was no retroactive application of it to Matherly.  As the Circuit explained, the Adam Walsh Act merely uses prior acts as evidence to support a finding of mental abnormality or future dangerousness, and does not punish those acts.  Thus, the Act addressed the dangers that could arise post-enactment, whenever a “sexually dangerous person” was released from imprisonment.  For this reason, the Fourth Circuit Affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment that the Walsh Act was not applied retroactively to Matherly.

The Record Was Insufficient to Determine Whether Matherly was “In Custody”

As the Fourth Circuit explicated, the term “custody” includes not just physical custody, but also “legal custody.”  Thus, in order for Matherly to be within the custody of the BOP at the time the certification was filed, the BOP would have to have “ultimate legal authority” over his detention.  In the district court, the government argued that Matherly was in their legal custody until November 23, when he was scheduled to be released originally.  Matherly countered that he was actually released on November 22, almost an hour before the certification was filed.  Matherly contended that the BOP no longer had legal custody over him because his release paperwork had been filed and processed.

The Fourth Circuit held that the record was simply too bare to determine whether the BOP had “relinquished ultimate legal authority” over Matherly prior to the filing of the certification, or whether they had merely released him physically from one facility in order to transfer him to another in anticipation of his civil commitment.  Ultimately, the Circuit held that “we believe the better course is to allow the parties an opportunity to better develop the record, and the district court an opportunity to make additional findings and conclusions.”


Because Adam Walsh Act does not apply retroactively but rather applies to involuntarily commit individuals who are currently a danger, the Fourth Circuit held that it was not wrongfully applied retroactively to Matherly and affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.  Because the record was too sparse to determine whether Matherly had been released from the BOP’s legal custody prior to the certification that he was a “sexually dangerous person,” the Circuit remanded for further proceedings to better develop the record.