United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect
Supreme Court debates limits of forced drugging of defendants
(03-03) 16:38 PST WASHINGTON (AP) --
The Supreme Court wrangled Monday over the government's authority to force nonviolent criminal defendants -- and potentially other people not charged with crimes -- to take drugs against their will.
The court is considering whether a dentist, now locked up in a psychiatric unit, can be forced to take anti-psychotic drugs to make him well enough to stand trial for health care fraud. But the justices did not limit their discussions to the drugging of people facing charges.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked if the government can require children to be vaccinated against smallpox. Justice Anthony Kennedy evoked an image of defendants and witnesses being injected before a trial with drugs that control their behavior. If the government can medicate the dentist, why not a person charged with a traffic violation, Justice Stephen Breyer asked.
The case asks the court to balance the government's interest in punishing nonviolent crime with a person's constitutional right to control his or her body.
Some justices indicated they may throw out the case without ever answering that question because of concern that it was improperly appealed, since the case hasn't yet come to trial.
Government attorney Michael Dreeben said the court needs to resolve uncertainty about forced medications.
Each year hundreds of federal defendants are put on medication to make them competent to stand trial. Most take the drugs willingly. In a recent 12-month period, 59 people were medicated against their wishes and about three-fourths were restored to competency, according to government.
In a series of decisions more than a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that inmates considered dangerous could be forced to take medication and that defendants in criminal trials could be required to take drugs if it was medically appropriate.
Charles Sell, 53, of St. Louis, has spent more than four years in a prison hospital as his lawyers fought over his drugging, more jail time than he would receive if convicted of the fraud crimes.
He has been diagnosed with a delusional disorder. Court records show that Sell has seen imaginary leopards, believes the FBI is trying to kill him and wants to go into combat.
Sell's lawyers and prosecutors agree that Sell is mentally ill and too unstable to stand trial.
Despite his delusions, Sell behaves normally and is not dangerous, justices were told by attorney Barry Short. "He is making a free choice" to avoid drugs that could have serious side effects, Short said.
Sell is accused of submitting bogus claims to Medicaid and private insurance companies for dental services. Sell was later charged with conspiring and attempting to kill a witness -- a former worker in his office -- and the FBI agent who arrested him.
Justice Antonin Scalia said he was concerned that serious charges would go unpunished if medication was not required. "What do we do with him?" Scalia asked. "It's just a crazy situation."
The Supreme Court was told by groups that the case could affect challenges to government programs requiring vaccinations against anthrax or school mandates that children with hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder take drugs to remain in class.
Judy Appel, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, said the case is especially important as the government increases surveillance in its war against terrorism. "We're in a moment in history when we need to have safeguards against the government's improper intrusion," she said.
The case is Sell v. U.S., 02-5664.
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©2003 Associated Press