In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of: Steven Loren Edwards.
Commitment Appeal Panel File No. AP18-9025
Ellison, Attorney General, Brandon Boese, Assistant Attorney
General, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant Minnesota
Commissioner of Human Services)
Backstrom, Dakota County Attorney, Heather Pipenhagen,
Assistant County Attorney, Hastings, Minnesota (for appellant
Jennifer L. Thon, Steven D. Winkler, Warren J. Maas, Jones
Law Office, Mankato, Minnesota (for respondent Steven
Considered and decided by Larkin, Presiding Judge; Ross,
Judge; and Bratvold, Judge.
court does not apply de novo review to a commitment appeal
panel's decision on the merits of a petition for a
reduction in custody under Minn. Stat. § 253D.27 (2018),
unless the panel has ordered dismissal under Minn. R. Civ. P.
41.02(b). Instead, we review such a decision for clear error,
examining the record to determine whether the evidence as a
whole sustains the panel's findings.
challenge an order of a commitment appeal panel
(CAP) granting, in part, respondent's
petition for a reduction in custody under Minn. Stat. §
253D.27. Because the evidence as a whole provides
insufficient support for the CAP's findings in support of
respondent's transfer out of a secure treatment facility,
Steven Loren Edwards is a 47-year-old man with a history of
alleged and proven criminal sexual conduct. In December 2000,
a woman reported that respondent tried to rape her in a
gas-station restroom. Respondent denied the allegation, and
the state did not file charges. In July 2001, a woman
reported that respondent masturbated in front of her and
touched her breasts. Respondent admitted that conduct, but
the state did not file charges. Also in July 2001, respondent
physically and sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl. He was
later convicted of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for
that offense. In September 2001, respondent held a pair of
scissors to the neck of a 16-year-old girl, forced her to
perform oral sex on him, and penetrated her vaginally and
anally. He was convicted of kidnapping and first-degree
criminal sexual conduct for that offense.
October 2011, respondent was civilly committed as a sexually
dangerous person (SDP) under the Minnesota Commitment and
Treatment Act: Sexually Dangerous Persons and Sexual
Psychopathic Personalities (MCTA: SDP/SPP), Minn. Stat.
§§ 253D.01-.36 (2018). In May 2012, his
indeterminate commitment at the Minnesota Sex Offender
Program (MSOP) was finalized. Since August 2013, respondent
has been in Phase II of MSOP's three-phase treatment
program. Since 2016, respondent's participation in
treatment has been sporadic. In May 2017, respondent stopped
participating in treatment, with the exception of a
conflict-resolution program. Respondent started participating
in treatment again in July 2018.
2017, respondent petitioned the special review board (SRB)
for transfer to community preparation services (CPS),
provisional discharge, or full discharge. See Minn.
Stat. § 253B.18, subd. 4c (2018) (establishing special
review board); Minn. Stat. § 253D.27 (setting forth
procedure by which persons civilly committed as sex offenders
may petition the special review board for a "reduction
in custody," which means transfer out of a secure
treatment facility, a provisional discharge, or a discharge
from commitment). Appellants Minnesota Commissioner of Human
Services (the commissioner) and Dakota County (the county)
opposed respondent's petition. The SRB recommended that
respondent's request for provisional and full discharge
be denied, but recommended that respondent's request for
transfer to CPS be granted. The commissioner petitioned the
CAP for rehearing and reconsideration on the issue of
transfer, and respondent petitioned the CAP for rehearing and
reconsideration on the issues of provisional and full
discharge. See Minn. Stat. § 253D.28, subd. 1
(authorizing petition to the CAP for rehearing and
reconsideration of a recommendation of the SRB under section
September 2018, the CAP heard the matter. At the beginning of
the hearing, respondent withdrew his request for full
discharge, leaving the transfer and provisional-discharge
issues before the CAP. Respondent presented testimony from
CPS Operations Manager Michelle Sexe and Forensic Evaluator
Jennifer Tippett, Psy.D., in support of his request for a
reduction in custody. See Minn. Stat. §
253D.28, subd. 2(d) (stating that a petitioner seeking
provisional discharge bears the burden of going forward with
the evidence). Sexe provided general information about CPS
and did not opine regarding whether transfer was appropriate.
Dr. Tippett opined that respondent meets the statutory
criteria for transfer to CPS. Respondent withdrew his request
for provisional discharge at the close of his evidence.
respondent presented his case, the commissioner moved to
dismiss respondent's petition under Minn. R. Civ. P.
41.02(b), and the CAP denied the motion. The commissioner
then presented testimony from MSOP Clinical Director Peter
Puffer, M.A., L.P., and court-appointed examiner Mary
Kenning, Ph.D., L.P. Puffer testified that MSOP clinical
leadership believes that a transfer to CPS would be
premature. Dr. Kenning opined that respondent does not meet
the statutory criteria for transfer to CPS.
granted respondent's request for transfer to CPS. The
commissioner and the county appeal.
this court apply de novo review to a CAP's decision on
the merits of a petition for a reduction in custody under
Minn. Stat. § 253D.27?
the CAP err by granting respondent's petition for
transfer to CPS?
argue that this court should reverse because the CAP erred in
concluding that respondent met his burden to show that
transfer to CPS should be granted. Appellants alternatively
argue that this court should remand because the CAP did not
provide sufficient factual findings to enable this court to
effectively review the CAP's application of the relevant
statutory criteria de novo.
begin by addressing the standard that applies to our review
of a CAP's decision on the merits of a petition for a
reduction in custody under Minn. Stat. § 253D.27.
Appellants contend that our review is de novo. An
"appeal de novo" is one in which "the
appellate court uses the [lower tribunal's] record but
reviews the evidence and law without deference to the [lower
tribunal's] rulings." Black's Law
Dictionary 117 (10th ed. 2014).
argue that this court applies de novo review because a
CAP's decision on the merits of a petition for a
reduction in custody is based on the application of statutory
criteria to facts found. Appellants rely on two unpublished
decisions of this court as support. Unpublished opinions of this
court are not precedential. Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd.
3 (2018); see Dynamic Air, Inc. v. Bloch, 502 N.W.2d
796, 800-01 (Minn.App. 1993) (noting that although
persuasive, "[t]he legislature has unequivocally
provided that unpublished opinions are not
precedential"). However, respondent agrees that our
standard of review is de novo, citing In re Civil
Commitment of Kropp for the proposition that this court
applies de novo review to a CAP's application of law to
the facts of a particular case. 895 N.W.2d 647, 650
(Minn.App. 2017), review denied (Minn. June 20,
parties' suggestion that this court should review the
CAP's ultimate decision on the merits of respondent's
petition de novo is inconsistent with language in this
court's published opinions indicating that we do not
apply de novo review. But we recognize that language in some
of those opinions mentions de novo review. We therefore take
this opportunity to clarify our standard of
begin with a review of the relevant caselaw. In Johnson
v. Noot, the Minnesota Supreme Court reviewed a
CAP's decisions regarding requests for full discharge
from two individuals committed as mentally ill and dangerous.
323 N.W.2d 724, 725 (Minn. 1982); see Minn. Stat.
§ 253B.18 (2018) (describing process for the civil
commitment of persons as mentally ill and dangerous); Minn.
Stat. § 253B.18, subd. 7 (providing for provisional
discharge); Minn. Stat. § 253B.18, subd. 15 (providing
for full discharge). The supreme court described the
applicable standard of review as follows:
The final issue we address is whether the [CAP's]
findings in either 81-460 or 81-696 were clearly erroneous.
The function of this court is not to weigh the evidence
as if trying the matter de novo, but to determine from
an examination of the record if the evidence as a whole
sustains the [CAPs'] findings. If it does so, it is
immaterial that the ...