March 3, 2003

U.S. 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

Washington, DC—Today’s 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. 

Dr. Sell has refused to take anti-psychotic medication, claiming that the drugs negatively interfere with his thinking and have dangerous side effects.

In 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 Medicare fraud.

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 far-reaching precedent.

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 censorship.”

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.

Read the CCLE’s Legal Brief :

View other resources in the Sell Case:

View Frequently Asked Questions on the Sell Case: FAQ.html