- Published: November 30, 1999
In the 2003 Supreme Court case of Sell v. United States, the Justices voted 6-3 in favor of the government being able to forcibly administer antipsychotic medication under limited circumstances to a defendant, in order to make them competent to stand trial. Currently, under US law, a defendant is found incompetent if he or she is unable to understand the court’s proceedings or is unable to help in his or her defense. In addition, it is important to note that incompetence regards the defendant’s state of mind at the time of the trial, which differs from the insanity defense, where the state of mind at the time of the crime is considered.
The limited circumstances highlighted in the court’s ruling include four criteria as presented in this article: there must be an important government interest at stake, the involuntary drugging must significantly further the government’s interest, the drugging must be deemed necessary and as a last resort, and the drugs must be medically appropriate.
In my opinion, I agree with the courts on this ruling. At the same time though, I wonder how much dependence we can actually put on antipsychotic drugs as a way to make someone competent enough to stand trial. According to David Oaks, the executive director of the psychiatric survivor organization Support Coalition International, “The myth of the benevolence of psychiatric drugs is a kind of magical thinking that many judges have bought into…” In some cases, these drugs could have side effects that prevent the defendant from having a fair trial.
Looking deeper at the issue, it is also important to consider the use of drugs for criminals in rehab. Where do the courts draw the line on the forcible administration of drugs for rehab? As of now, I believe that only under certain circumstances does the government have the right to involuntary drug a criminal. For me, those circumstances depend on how dangerous the criminal is to society and how strong the scientific evidence is in support of using these drugs. What do you think?