U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Order to Forcibly Medicate Mentally Ill Defendant

Affiliate: ACLU of Missouri
June 16, 2003 12:00 am

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ST. LOUIS — The United States Supreme Court today affirmed that an individual has a significant constitutionally protected liberty interest in avoiding the unwanted administration of antipsychotic drugs in a case that set firm guidelines on when the government can drug a person against his will.

“The Court today recognized that individuals have a fundamental interest in being free from involuntary medication and made clear that the government cannot medicate a defendant against his will solely to prosecute the case unless it has met stringent requirements,” said Denise Lieberman, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the St. Louis dentist who had challenged the government’s attempt to medicate him.

“The Court held that the individual’s circumstances must be taken into account and could mitigate the government’s interest in involuntarily medicating a person in order to prosecute him,” Lieberman added.

“When it comes to government actions that infringe on fundamental liberties, the government can and should be made to take individual circumstances into account. Indeed, while the court held that some circumstances could allow for forced medication, it conceded that those could be rare.”

Dr. Charles Sell, a St. Louis dentist, was charged in 1997 with Medicaid and insurance fraud. He has been diagnosed with “delusional disorder, persecutory type,” a mental illness that rendered him incompetent to stand trial. Prosecutors sought a court order to medicate him against his will with antipsychotic drugs in the hope that it would make him competent to stand trial. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis affirmed the lower court’s ruling that Sell could be medicated against his will — even though he is non-dangerous — solely to promote the government’s interest in trying him on the charges against him.

The U.S. Supreme Court today held that the Appeals Court was wrong in approving Sell to be forcibly medicated, finding that it failed to adequately consider the balance between Sell’s individual liberty interest in being free from forced medication and the government’s interest in trying him.

The order to medicate Dr. Sell was vacated, and the Court remanded the case to the lower courts to consider the factors it laid out. In Dr. Sell’s case, he has already been confined for longer than the maximum sentence he could receive if he was found guilty.

“The right of each person to determine his or her medical treatment is one of the most valued liberties in a democratic society,” wrote Washington University Prof. Peter Joy, who authored the brief for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “At issue in this case is nothing less than whether an individual has the right to make medical decisions affecting his body and mind.”

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