Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reversal of order requiring medication by force

US v. John Watson, Jr.:  In this appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order that granted the government’s request to forcibly medicate Watson to attempt to make him competent to stand trial.  A divided panel concluded that the government had not met its burden of proving that forcibly medicating Watson, in particular, was substantially likely to restore his competency.  Watson had been indicted with several charges after he shot at a Coast Guard helicopter with a handgun.

The issue of whether to forcibly medicate a defendant to render them competent to stand trial is controlled by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Sell v. United States.   In Sell, the Supreme Court developed a four-part test; each part must be proven to the “deliberately high” standard of clear and convincing evidence.

On appeal, the first two parts of the Sell test were at issue: whether the government showed important governmental interests at stake; and whether the government showed that involuntary medication would significantly further its interests, requiring proof that the medication is substantially likely to render the defendant competent to stand trial and substantially unlikely to have side effects which would interest significantly with the defendant’s ability to assist counsel at trial.

The Fourth Circuit held that because the district court had clearly erred in finding that the government met its burden on the second prong of the test, it did not decide whether the district court erred with respect to its conclusions on the first prong of the Sell test.  With regard to the second part of the test, the Fourth Circuit discussed the lack of findings below that assessed the likely success of the government’s proposed treatment plan in relation to Watson and his condition in particular; the Fourth Circuit stated that the proper enquiry for courts is not whether the proposed treatment plan will work in general, but whether it will work as applied to a particular defendant.  The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not undertake the searching and individualized assessment of Watson’s likely susceptibility to forcible medication that is required by law.

Further, by resolving the appeal issues in this case by deciding that the government has not justified forcible medication in this case, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court’s order be reversed, rather than remanding the case to the district court for further proceedings.  The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court had ample opportunity to assemble and defend the evidence necessary to meet its burden here, and it failed to do so.

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