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Kansas v. Cheever: Compelled Mental Exams OK'd For Rebuttal

By William Peacock, Esq. on December 11, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This was an intriguing case that received a surprisingly cursory and unanimous resolution.

Cheever was chronic methamphetamine user. One day, back in 2005, he cooked and smoked meth. Coincidentally, the police showed up to handle an unrelated warrant. He shot and killed the sheriff of Greenwood County, Kansas, then fired at other officers until he was eventually detained.

He was first charged with a capital offense in state court, but the charges were dropped when Kansas declared its death penalty to be unconstitutional. Federal charges were brought, but the trial was halted when defense counsel was unable to continue. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court reinstated Kansas's death penalty. State charges were brought once again.

The Compelled Mental Examination

While in Federal Court, Cheever filed notice that he intended to introduce expert evidence that methamphetamine intoxication negated his ability to form specific intent. The court ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

When the case headed back to state court, Cheever raised a voluntary intoxication defense under state law. The trial court, over Cheever's objection, allowed the testimony of the expert who had completed the compelled exam.

Kansas Supreme Court: Unconstitutional Self-Incrimination

As we discussed in our preview of the case, the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Cheever's conviction, stating:

"allowing the State's psychiatric expert . . . to testify based on his court-ordered mental examination of Cheever, when Cheever had not waived his privilege under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution in that examination by presenting a mental disease or defect defense at trial, violated Cheever's privilege against compulsory self-incrimination secured by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

But wait, isn't he alleging a mental disease or defect? Because of the temporary nature of voluntary intoxication, the Kansas court didn't think so, and they took a narrow view of the Supreme Court's precedent in the area.

SCOTUS: Defendant Opened the Door

Justice Sotomayor, writing for a unanimous court, clarified the scope of prior court opinions allowing compelled mental exams. In Buchanan v. Kentucky, the court held that a state may introduce the results of a compelled exam for the limited purpose of rebutting a mental-status defense.

And while the Kansas Supreme Court emphasized that voluntary intoxication was not a "disease or defect" under state law, that isn't the key phrase per Buchanan -- "mental status" was the far more encompassing term used.

The temporary nature of intoxication, emphasized by the state court, was also irrelevant, as Buchanan dealt with extreme emotional disturbance, a similarly temporary affliction.

Finally, one other distinction was held to be irrelevant. In Buchanan, the exam was jointly requested by parties, while here, it was compelled.

"The rule of Buchanan, which we reaffirm today, is that where a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit an offense, the prosecution may present psychiatric evidence in rebuttal."

Dangerous Precedent?

On the one hand, the court's logic seems fair. The defendant wants to make his mental health an issue and the prosecution needs to be able to rebut those arguments. "Any other rule would undermine the adversarial process, allowing a defendant to provide the jury, through an expert operating as proxy, with a one-sided and potentially inaccurate view of his mental state at the time of the alleged crime."

On the other hand, will this lead to compelled mental examinations in all cases where the defense is "I was drunk?" Or is it limited to situations where, as here, the defendant brought in an expert on the effects of chronic meth use? The court does limit its holding to rebuttal.

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