March 3, 2003
Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument
in Forced-Drugging Case
Does the Constitution
Forbid Forcibly Drugging
an Arrestee to Make Him Competent to Stand Trial?
Justices Examine the
Intersection of Freedom of Thought With New Mind-Altering Drugs
Supreme Court oral argument saw government lawyers clashing with lawyers for
Dr. Charles Thomas Sell, a St. Louis dentist whom the government seeks to
forcibly inject with psychoactive drugs in an effort to make him competent
to stand trial.
Sell has refused to take anti-psychotic medication, claiming that the drugs
negatively interfere with his thinking and have dangerous side effects.
oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court this morning, government
attorneys asserted that a state’s interest in bringing criminal cases to
trial was sufficient to justify forcibly drugging Dr. Sell, who has now been
in custody for longer than he could have been imprisoned if found guilty of
Justice Kennedy, who repeatedly questioned whether the government had any
authority to order medication in this situation, also asked whether the
interest in brining cases to trial would justify the government
force-drugging a material witness suffering from mental illness in order to
present evidence. An attorney for the US Solicitor General’s office appeared
to concede that a ruling in favor of the government could set such
Backed by a number of civil liberties organizations, Dr. Sell’s lawyers told
the Court that their client’s right to bodily and mental integrity was
guaranteed under the First, Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.
Justice Scalia expressed the opinion that forced-drugging ought to be
reviewed after the fact, to prevent defendants who assert such rights from
hindering the work of criminal courts.
Legal scholars say the case is important because it is a harbinger of how
the justices will allocate the right of an individual to control his or her
own cognitive process in a world increasingly saturated with drugs and other
technology having powerful effects on the mind.
According to Richard Glen Boire, a constitutional law scholar who filed an
amicus brief in support of Dr. Sell’s right to resist the forcible
drugging, “This case is important because it flips the drug war on its
head—here a citizen is seeking to ‘just say no’ to psychoactive drugs that
the government is trying to force upon him.” Boire argued that the justices
should find that the First Amendment protection for freedom of thought must
be construed so as to guard against “chemical coercion and cognitive
The court's decision in the case (Sell v. United States, No. 02-5664), is
expected in June, and could have broad implications regarding the state’s
power to control, prohibit, or forcibly administer psychoactive drugs.