In another significant challenge to the indefinite commitment of sex offenders, Minnesota’s Court of Appeals on Monday ordered a fresh evaluation of a convicted 50-year-old rapist and the risk that he will commit new crimes.

In September, the Sherburne County District Court issued a 79-page order in which it concluded that Gary Spicer met the criteria for civil commitment to the secure facility at Moose Lake as a sexually dangerous person and a sexual psychopathic personality. He had three convictions for criminal sexual conduct and multiple incidents of sexual misconduct that didn’t result in prosecution.

But the district court’s finding of facts for commitment was found lacking by the Appeals Court because it merely repeated evidence presented at trial and didn’t explain what evidence the court found most persuasive or important. The lower court also simply adopted the three expert opinions regarding Spicer’s risk to reoffend, even though they varied and were sometimes inconsistent.

The ruling comes a few months after the state Supreme Court took the rare step of overturning the civil commitment of a convicted 24-year-old rapist, Cedrick Ince. Citing the unusual circumstances of his case, the justices ordered the district court to reassess whether he is highly likely to re-engage in acts of harmful sexual conduct and if a less restrictive treatment alternative might be available.

Last week, a federal judge rejected motions to release or transfer two sex offenders while raising serious doubts about the constitutionality of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP). U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank quoted a state task force report that said there is “broad consensus that the current system of civil commitment of sex offenders in Minnesota captures too many people and keeps too many of them too long,” as well as a critical report in 2011 by the state legislative auditor. Four experts appointed to evaluate the program as part of a class-action lawsuit handled by the judge told him last week that they need more time to complete their work.

The court’s ruling in the Spicer case will have broad implications for sex offenders being held indefinitely at the secured facilities at St. Peter or Moose Lake, said Eric Janus, president of William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

“To me, this indicates for the first time that the appellate court will start taking a closer look how the lower courts assess risk and danger of the offender,” he said. “Until now, the appeals court has deferred to the trial courts and hasn’t tried to sort what standards they used. It’s a really, really important development.”

There are nearly 700 sex offenders in Minnesota committed indefinitely by court order. Only two have been placed on any kind of provisional discharge, and none have been unconditionally released since the program’s inception in 1993. Only six of the 450 offenders who have appealed their civil commitments have had them overturned, and nearly all of those happened in the program’s first few years.

All of Spicer’s victims were 22 and younger. During his four-day commitment trial, one of three experts testified that Spicer didn’t meet the criteria for commitment as a sexually dangerous person. Typically, the experts use a battery of psychological and clinical assessments.

Overall, the Court of Appeals found the district court’s findings insufficient. In reaching that conclusion, they wrote, “we recognize that a district court’s responsibility in a case such as this one is a difficult task in significant part because of a voluminous and complex record.” It has become common in sex offender commitment cases for counsel to submit an exceedingly large volume of information and materials, which adds to the complexity, they wrote.

The Court of Appeals issued the Spicer ruling as a published opinion, which is done in only the most important and complex cases. Ryan Magnus, Spicer’s attorney, said the appeals court affirmed an unpublished opinion on a case very similar to the Spicer case last week. He welcomes the greater scrutiny that the higher court appears to be giving to commitment cases.

The district court review of Ince’s case was completed in June and the judge has taken it under advisement. That case, the Spicer ruling and federal lawsuit, task forces and legislative auditor’s report have all pushed the doors slightly more open in civil commitment cases, Janus said.

“It’s all pointing in the same direction,” he said. “There needs to be more control and accountability exercised in these cases. You can’t really start to do anything if you can’t sort out why the decision was made.”