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Court Limits Defendant Drugging

June 20, 2003  | 

In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court outlined limits on the government’s authority to forcibly administer medications to make defendants fit to stand trial.

Based on the ruling, the government must show that putting defendants on anti-psychotic drugs against their will help bring the case to trial, and courts must consider “alternative, less intrusive treatments” before forcing medication, Justice Stephen Breyer said, writing for the majority. He said forcing medication will only be rarely allowed.

Judith Appel, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports people’s right to determine what drugs they take, says, “Hopefully, courts will use this test carefully to protect against coercive drugging.”

This ruling dealt with the individual rights of defendants to have control over their own bodies, an issue not previously debated in the same way in the court. Most defendants voluntarily take anti-psychotic drugs that allow them to stand trial, but some refuse.

Critics of involuntarily medicating defendants say it should be a person’s right to decide whether he or she should be medicated or not.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas, said that the ruling would allow some criminal defendants “to engage in opportunistic behavior” to impede prosecution.

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