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Courts Can't Forcibly Medicate to Make a Defendant Stand Trial

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

Can the court force criminal defendants to take medication to make them competent to stand trial? Apparently, no. At least, not in the Ninth Circuit in this particular case.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that a lower district judge should not have allowed the forcible medication of defendant Nna Alpha Onuoha, the former LAX security officer who was accused of making threatening calls over the airport's phone system, calling for authorities to evacuate. Why? Because it wasn't in his best medical interests.

Competency to Stand Trial

Onuoha was criminally indicted after he used LAX's phone system to contact authorities within the airport, calling for their evacuation. Before he could stand trial, he was found unfit and incompetent and suffering from schizophrenia. The lower district court then ordered Onuoha to be forcibly medicated in order to temporarily cure his schizophrenia and to make him competent to stand trial. But the process would take time and Onuoha's attorneys sought an interlocutory appeal.

Sell v. United States

SCOTUS has dealt with this issue before in the case of Sell v. United States. Sell stands for the proposition that the government may involuntarily medical a criminal defendant in order to restore competency to stand trial only if several factors are satisfied first. These factors are an important (note: not compelling) government interest, the medication would significantly advance that interest, the medication is necessary to advance that interest, and that the medication is in the best interests of the defendant.

The district court found that all the Sell factors were met. But Onuoha's attorneys challenged the satisfaction of factors one and four.

Not in Defendant's "Best Medical Interests"

It was quickly determined that given the nature of Onuoha's actions, the calls could have reasonably been perceived as terrorist threats -- and in the current security climate, such a conclusion would support a compelling government interest, let alone an important one.

But the circuit balked at the medical appropriateness of the amount of the medication that was in store for Onuoha. According to court findings, the antipsychotic drug that was on schedule for Onuoha was highly potent and that Onuoha's starting dosage was six times greater than the recommended starting dose by the Bureau of Prisons. A prolonged intake of such a potent drug would pose a significant threat of medical harm to him. Given these findings, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.

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