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United States v. Welsh

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 12, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Petitioner - Appellee,
v.
WILLIAM CARL WELSH, Respondent - Appellant.

          Argued: September 20, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. James C. Dever III, District Judge.

         ARGUED

          Jaclyn Lee DiLauro, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          Michael Lockridge, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF

          Thomas P. McNamara, Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellant.

          John Stuart Bruce, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before DUNCAN, DIAZ, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.

          DIAZ, Circuit Judge

         In January 2011, William Carl Welsh pleaded guilty in an Oregon federal district court to failing to comply with the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act ("SORNA") and was sentenced to 673 days in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. Welsh admitted that he had not updated his sex offender registration in Oregon when he left the state to move to Belize. While in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for that offense, Welsh was certified as a sexually dangerous person and civilly committed under § 4248 of Title 18, enacted by the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

         The Supreme Court later held in a different case that the version of SORNA then applicable to Welsh's offense did not require a sex offender to update his registration in his former homestate after moving to a foreign country. As a result, Welsh successfully moved to have his SORNA conviction vacated. He then sought relief from his civil commitment. Welsh claimed that the judgment was void under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4) because he was never in the legal custody of the Bureau of Prisons. He also sought relief under Rules 60(b)(5) and 60(b)(6) because his civil commitment was based on a now-vacated conviction.

         Because Welsh's civil commitment judgment is not void under Rule 60(b)(4) and the district court had discretion to deny relief under Rules 60(b)(5) and 60(b)(6), we affirm.

         I.

         Before explaining our decision, we provide additional details of the unusual events giving rise to this appeal.

          A.

         As we noted earlier, Welsh pleaded guilty to failing to update his registration as a sex offender as required by SORNA, 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). While Welsh was confined for that offense, the government certified him as a "sexually dangerous person" and transferred him to the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina.

         Such a certification stayed Welsh's release pending a hearing to determine whether he was a sexually dangerous person. 18 U.S.C. § 4248(a). Under federal law, a person is a "sexually dangerous person" if he has "engaged or attempted to engage in sexually violent conduct or child molestation and . . . is sexually dangerous to others." 18 U.S.C. § 4247(a)(5). A person is sexually dangerous to others if he "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." 18 U.S.C. § 4247(a)(6). If, after a hearing, "the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the person is a sexually dangerous person, the court shall commit the person to the custody of the Attorney General." 18 U.S.C. § 4248(d).

         The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina found Welsh to be a sexually dangerous person and ordered him committed. The court's determination rested largely on Welsh's criminal history, which includes repeated convictions for child molestation, sodomy, and sexual abuse dating back to 1979. The court also "considered Welsh's poor performance on supervision, including his absconding to Belize." J.A. 59. And the court relied on testimony from two experts who, after evaluating Welsh, concluded that he met the criteria for civil commitment.

         Welsh remains committed at the Butner Federal Correctional Institution. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4247(e)(B), the director of the facility provides the district court with an annual report on Welsh's mental condition and whether his commitment should continue. Most recently, in Welsh's 2017 annual report, a forensic psychologist concluded that Welsh "continues to suffer from a severe mental illness, abnormality, or disorder that would cause him to experience serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation if he was released to the community" and that "[t]herefore, discharge or conditional release is not recommended at this time." J.A. 149.

         B.

         In 2016, the Supreme Court decided in Nichols v. United States that SORNA- before it was amended in February 2016-did not require a person to update his registration in a state that he was leaving in order to travel to a foreign country. 136 S.Ct. 1113, 1118 (2016). As a result, a federal district court in Oregon granted Welsh's motion to vacate his conviction for violating SORNA, concluding that "the factual basis for the guilty plea . . . did not constitute a federal crime." J.A. 73‒74.

         With vacatur in hand, Welsh moved for relief from his civil commitment judgment in the Eastern District of North Carolina, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(4), (b)(5), and (b)(6). The district court denied the motion. We review denial of a Rule 60(b)(4) motion de novo. Wendt v. Leonard, 431 F.3d 410, 412 (4th Cir. 2005). Denial of a Rule 60(b)(5) or 60(b)(6) motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion. MLC Auto, LLC v. Town of S. Pines, 532 F.3d 269, 277 (4th Cir. 2008).

         II.

         To obtain relief from a judgment under Rule 60(b), a moving party must first show (1) that the motion is timely, (2) that he has a meritorious claim or defense, and (3) that the opposing party will not suffer unfair prejudice if the judgment is set aside. Nat'l Credit Union Admin. Bd. v. Gray, 1 F.3d 262, 264 (4th Cir. 1993). The party must also satisfy one of six enumerated grounds for relief under Rule 60(b). Id. at 266.

         A.

         In this case, Welsh sought relief under Rules 60(b)(4), (b)(5), and (b)(6). We start with Welsh's claim under Rule 60(b)(4), which allows relief from a judgment that is void. The rule applies "only in the rare instance where a judgment is premised either on a certain type of jurisdictional error or on a violation of due process that deprives a party of notice or ...


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