The Supreme Court
Limiting Forced Medication
Can the government force psychotic defendants to take drugs? The Supreme Court limited the government's right to do that with the next case I'll review—Sell v. United States.
Just the Facts
In the 1990 landmark case, Washington v. Harper, the Supreme Court ruled that an individual does have the right to avoid the “unwanted administration of antipsychotic drugs.” In that case, the Court set two criteria that must be met before forcing an inmate to take drugs against his or her will:
Dr. Charles Sell was a dentist, who in 1997 was charged with fraudulently billing Medicaid and private insurers, as well as with money laundering. He had a history of psychiatric hospitalizations for psychosis. Initially, he was considered competent to stand trial, but as his condition deteriorated over time his competency was questioned. During a bail revocation hearing, he yelled and spit at a magistrate. He also faced additional charges of conspiring to kill a witness and an FBI agent.
Following the incident at the bail hearing, Dr. Sell was sent for another evaluation and was found incompetent to stand trail. He was diagnosed with delusional disorder, persecutory type. He was then sent to a federal medical facility to determine if his competence could be restored. The evaluating physician said he could, but only if he was treated with antipsychotic medication. Dr. Sell refused treatment and remained confined to a federal prison hospital, where he still remained as of 2003.
In 1999 the federal magistrate judge held a competency hearing, and based on testimony from the physicians at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, which said Sell was a danger to himself and others but medication could render him less dangerous, ordered him to be forcibly medicated. The doctor testified that any serious side effects could be eased and that the benefits outweighed the risks. Additionally, the doctor said the drugs would return him to competency.
Dr. Sell appealed the magistrate's decision to district court. The district court found the dangerous claim erroneous, but concluded that medication was the only viable hope to render Sell competent to stand trial, which was necessary to serve the government's interest in deciding his guilt or innocence. The 8th Circuit Court affirmed the district court. Dr. Sell then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In a 6 to 3 ruling on June 16, 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed the government's authority to administer psychotic drugs to a criminal defendant solely for the purposes of rending him or her competent to stand trial, provided these four criteria are met:
The Supreme Court vacated the lower court rulings and remanded the case back to the district court to consider these criteria.
Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Ginsburg, Kennedy, Souter and Stevens. Justice Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by O'Connor and Thomas. In writing for the Court, Breyer said:
In writing the dissent, Justice Scalia did not question the criteria set by the Court, but instead questioned the necessity for an interlocutory appeal, which prevented the trial from going forward. Scalia wrote:
Since the ruling just came down in June 2003, we won't know its full effects for years to come, but you can be certain it will be used for future appeals and likely make it back to a future Supreme Court.