Criminal Defendants Can be Forced to Take Mind-Altering Substances Before Standing Trial, According to Today

Press Release June 15, 2003
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Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or 510-812-3126

The U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark decision today involving forced drugging of criminal defendants in order to stand trial. The case — U.S. v. Sell — involved a former dentist, Dr. Charles Sell, who was charged with Medicaid fraud, and was unable to stand trial due to lack of competency from a delusional disorder.

In a victory for the prosecutors, the Supreme Court upheld the use of forcibly drugging nonviolent criminal defendants while establishing guidelines for courts to follow in deciding whether or not such defendants can be forced to take mind-altering drugs in order to stand trial. Dr. Sell’s case has been remanded for reconsideration under the new guidelines.

“We urge trial courts to take the Supreme Court guidelines seriously before deciding whether or not to force somebody to take drugs,” said Judy Appel, Deputy Director of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, who filed an amicus brief in the case. “A nonviolent, non-threatening defendant who suffers from mental illness is still innocent until proven guilty, and should not lose their basic Constitutional rights.”

Federal prosecutors in Missouri, where Dr. Sell was to stand trial, wanted to inject him with anti-psychotic medications so that he could be competent enough to stand trial prior to completion of his treatment. Currently in a locked psychiatric facility, Dr. Sell challenged this decision as a substantial infringement on his dignity, and as an interference with his mental and bodily autonomy. He is not accused of a violent crime, nor does he currently pose a threat to others.

“The idea of the state pumping powerful, mind altering drugs into an unwilling citizen is chilling under any circumstances,” said Appel. “But when that citizen hasn’t even been convicted of anything, you’re flat out saying goodbye to core American values.”

Defendants of Dr. Sell, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Psychological Association and the National Association for Criminal Defense Attorneys, who all filed amicus briefs in the case, argue that forced drugging is a violation of personal autonomy and bodily integrity; an infringement on defendants’ rights; and a medical issue that should be decided by doctors, rather than judges.

“When governments decide they know better than us what should and shouldn’t go into our bodies, two things can happen: the war on drugs and forced drugging,” added Appel. “It might seem paradoxical, but both policies come from the same dangerous effort to control a free citizenry.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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