During the case’s argument session, justices questioned how to balance the government’s interest in pursuing justice for non-violent crime with a person’s constitutional right to bodily integrity.
Arguments centered on the case of Dr. Charles Sell, a St. Louis dentist challenging a court order that he should take anti-psychotic medication in order to stand trial on health fraud charges. Sell’s attorney said his defendant is able to behave normally and does not want to be put on the powerful drugs.
“Then he should be able to stand trial,” Justice Antonin Scalia interjected according to an Associated Press report.
Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned whether the courts should have the ability to order defendants or witnesses to use medication in the name of justice.
“Could you send your guy out there with a needle the day before the trial … so that he behaves the way the government wants him to at trial?” Kennedy asked a government lawyer.
Kennedy added, “I do not understand your basic authority to do this at all.”
The justices also questioned whether they had the jurisdiction to properly rule on the case, since Sell has not yet stood trial due to the legal volleying over his metal state.
Sell’s attorney argued that the appeal before trial was the only way to prevent the forced medication.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist responded that the high court has a strict policy against “piecemeal appeals in criminal cases,” according to a Reuters report.
Scalia asked what would happen if Sell was allowed to refuse the medication, but then could not be put on trial due to his delusional mental state.
“What do we do with him?” Scalia asked. “It’s just a crazy situation.”
Other justices questioned the broader implications of the case on issues such as required school vaccinations.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor questioned Sell’s assertion that he has an absolute right to be free from forced medication by the government.
“How about vaccinating little children to be free from smallpox?” she asked.
The Sell case involves charges of Medicaid fraud, mail fraud and money laundering brought against the dentist and his wife in May 1997. In the years since, Sell, who has a history of mental illness, has undergone multiple psychiatric evaluations and was eventually found to be suffering from a “delusional disorder” making him incompetent to assist in his own defense and not fit to stand trial.
The charges against Sell have also escalated. In April 1998, he was charged in a second indictment for conspiring with his wife to kill a witness — a former employee of Sell’s at his dental office — and the FBI agent who arrested him.
The lower courts ordered that while Sell may not be a danger to himself or anyone else, he should be treated with anti-psychotic medication to help him the gain the capacity to stand trial. Sell challenged this ruling, asserting that he has the constitutional right to refuse “mind-altering” medication.
Had Sell been convicted of the fraud charges against him in 1997, he would have spent a maximum of three and a half years in jail. Instead, he has spent the last five years both in jail, including 20 months in solitary confinement, and in prison hospitals.
The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics filed a brief in support of Sell’s position, saying in part that “the fundamental right to control one’s own intellect and mental processes is protected by the First Amendment, and is eviscerated if courts permit the government to forcibly drug citizens.”