Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166, 14 (2003)

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Cite as: 539 U. S. 166 (2003)

Opinion of the Court

that only an "essential" or "overriding" state interest might overcome. 504 U. S., at 134, 135. The Court suggested that, in principle, forced medication in order to render a defendant competent to stand trial for murder was constitutionally permissible. The Court, citing Harper, noted that the State "would have satisfied due process if the prosecution had demonstrated . . . that treatment with antipsychotic medication was medically appropriate and, considering less intrusive alternatives, essential for the sake of Riggins' own safety or the safety of others." 504 U. S., at 135 (emphasis added). And it said that the State "[s]imilarly . . . might have been able to justify medically appropriate, involuntary treatment with the drug by establishing that it could not obtain an adjudication of Riggins' guilt or innocence" of the murder charge "by using less intrusive means." Ibid. (emphasis added). Because the trial court had permitted forced medication of Riggins without taking account of his "liberty interest," with a consequent possibility of trial prejudice, the Court reversed Riggins' conviction and remanded for further proceedings. Id., at 137-138. Justice Kennedy, concurring in the judgment, emphasized that antipsychotic drugs might have side effects that would interfere with the defendant's ability to receive a fair trial. Id., at 145 (finding forced medication likely justified only where State shows drugs would not significantly affect defendant's "behavior and demeanor").

These two cases, Harper and Riggins, indicate that the Constitution permits the Government involuntarily to administer antipsychotic drugs to a mentally ill defendant facing serious criminal charges in order to render that defendant competent to stand trial, but only if the treatment is medically appropriate, is substantially unlikely to have side effects that may undermine the fairness of the trial, and, taking account of less intrusive alternatives, is necessary significantly to further important governmental trial-related interests.


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