Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Trial Rights and Psychotropic Drugs: The Case against Administering Involuntary Medications to a Defendant during Trial

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Law Review

Trial Rights and Psychotropic Drugs: The Case against Administering Involuntary Medications to a Defendant during Trial

Article excerpt


The right of an accused in a criminal trial to due process is, in essence, the right to a fair opportunity to defend against the State's accusations.1

Those who have experienced the full thrust of the power of government when leveled against them know that the only protection the citizen has is in the requirement for a fair trial.2

[I]nvoluntary medication with antipsychotic drugs poses a serious threat to a defendant's right to a fair trial.3

On July 24, 1998, Russell Weston shot and killed two police officers, and wounded a third, near a security checkpoint in the United States Capitol building.4 Reportedly, Weston's goal was to gain access to the "override console" of the "ruby satellite system," a time machine located in the "great safe of the U.S. Senate," so that he could prevent "cannibals" from taking over and spreading "black heva," a deadly plague.5 A federal prison psychiatrist diagnosed Weston as suffering from schizophrenia,6 and the D.C. District

Court found him incompetent to stand trial.7 A person is competent to stand trial so long as he has "sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and "a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him."8 This competency requirement is based on the recognition that in an adversary system of justice, it is unfair to convict someone who is unable to defend himself.9 Although treatment with psychotropic medications' can sometimes render an in

competent detainee competent,11 Weston refused to take these medications voluntarily. 12

For more than three years, the federal courts in the District of Columbia struggled with the question of whether Weston could be compelled to take psychotropic medications involuntarily.13 The

government argued that the medications were necessary both to prevent Weston from harming himself and others and also to render Weston competent to stand trial.14 Weston's attorneys argued that compelling Weston to take psychotropic medications would violate Weston's liberty interest in refusing medical treatment and his right to a fair trial. 15

As Weston's case illustrates, determining whether to allow the administration of involuntary psychotropic medications to an incompetent pretrial detainee requires a court to consider multiple interests of both the detainee and the government. In the absence of clear guidance from the Supreme Court,16 lower courts have reached various conclusions about when the government's interests justify compelling a detainee to take psychotropic medications.17 Although preventing a detainee from harming himself or others generally has been considered sufficient to justify administering involuntary medications,18 some courts have found that rendering a detainee competent to stand trial also justifies involuntary medications.19 Other courts, however, have determined that the government's interest in rendering a detainee competent does not justify involuntary medications.20 Additionally, some courts have held that whether involuntary medications will violate a detainee's right to a

fair trial must be determined before the medications are administered.21 Conversely, some courts have held that involuntary medications may be administered to an incompetent pretrial detainee without first determining whether the medications will unjustifiably infringe his fair trial rights.22

This Note proposes that the best way to resolve this confusion is for courts to decide that government interests cannot justify administering involuntary psychotropic drugs to a defendant during trial. In general, administering involuntary psychotropic drugs infringes an individual's interest in refusing medical treatment,23 but can be justified by several government interests, particularly the interest in preventing the individual from harming himself or others.24 During a trial, however, administering involuntary psychotropic drugs infringes not only the interest in refusing medical treatment, but also the right to a fair trial, which cannot be justified by any government interest. …

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