Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

No. 02-5664. Argued March 3, 2003—Decided June 16, 2003

A Federal Magistrate Judge (Magistrate) initially found petitioner Sell, who has a long history of mental illness, competent to stand trial for fraud and released him on bail, but later revoked bail because Sell's condition had worsened. Sell subsequently asked the Magistrate to reconsider his competence to stand trial for fraud and attempted murder. The Magistrate had him examined at a United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners (Medical Center), found him mentally incompetent to stand trial, and ordered his hospitalization to determine whether he would attain the capacity to allow his trial to proceed. While there, Sell refused the staff's recommendation to take antipsychotic medication. Medical Center authorities decided to allow involuntary medication, which Sell challenged in court. The Magistrate authorized forced administration of antipsychotic drugs, finding that Sell was a danger to himself and others, that medication was the only way to render him less dangerous, that any serious side effects could be ameliorated, that the benefits to Sell outweighed the risks, and that the drugs were substantially likely to return Sell to competence. In affirming, the District Court found the Magistrate's dangerousness finding clearly erroneous but concluded that medication was the only viable hope of rendering Sell competent to stand trial and was necessary to serve the Govern-ment's interest in obtaining an adjudication of his guilt or innocence. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. Focusing solely on the fraud charges, it found that the Government had an essential interest in bringing Sell to trial, that the treatment was medically appropriate, and that the medical evidence indicated a reasonable probability that Sell would fairly be able to participate in his trial.


1. The Eighth Circuit had jurisdiction to hear the appeal. The District Court's pretrial order was an appealable "collateral order" within the exceptions to the rule that only final judgments are appealable. The order conclusively determines the disputed question whether Sell has a legal right to avoid forced medication. Coopers & Lybrand v. Livesay, 437 U. S. 463, 468. It also resolves an important issue, for involuntary medical treatment raises questions of clear constitutional importance. Ibid. And the issue is effectively unreviewable on appeal

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