Treatment over Objection to Restore Defendant to Competency to Stand Trial

United States v. Sheikh, No. 15-4616, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 9920 (4th Cir. June 1, 2016)

Fourth Circuit upholds district court order authorizing treatment. [Editor’s Note: This is an unpublished opinion and, thus, is not binding precedent. It is included because it is an instructive case regarding fact-finding under Sell and United States v. Watson, 793 F.3d 416 (4th Cir. 2015). DMHL previously covered Watson in Volume 34, Issue 3.]

Background: The United States charged Basit Javed Sheikh with one count of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2339B after his alleged attempt to join al-Nusrah Front, a foreign terrorist organization designated by the Secretary of State as an alias for al-Qa’ida. The district court concluded that Sheikh was incompetent to stand trial after two pretrial competency examinations, and ordered him hospitalized for attempted competency restoration. Sheikh refused to cooperate with treatment, and the United States moved for permission to involuntarily medicate him based on his psychiatric evaluation. At the Sell hearing, three medical experts testified and the district court determined that involuntary medication was appropriate. The order was stayed pending Sheikh’s anticipated interlocutory appeal.

Holding: The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the district court had properly applied the four-part test established by Sell, and had adequately explained its findings. The court found that involuntary medication of the defendant would significantly further the United States’ prosecution interests without a substantial likelihood of producing side effects that would interfere with the defendant’s ability to assist counsel in conducting a defense.

Notable Points:

The possibility of civil commitment did not sufficiently mitigate the United States’ prosecutorial interest to preclude involuntary medication: The first Sell factor weighs the government’s interest in bringing to trial an individual accused of a “serious” crime. Fourth Circuit precedent has recognized that a crime carrying a statutory maximum of ten years or more qualifies as “serious” within the Sell context—the crime of which Sheikh was accused carried a statutory maximum of fifteen years. Despite this strong prosecutorial interest, Sheikh contended that the district court had erred by failing to find the possibility of his civil commitment to be a special circumstance sufficient to negate the United States’ prosecutorial interests (see U.S. v. Onuoha below, which discusses special circumstances as well). Sheikh argued that the likelihood of his civil commitment mitigated (and negated) the government’s prosecutorial interest because they “need not be concerned that he will be released to the public” even in the absence of a conviction.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed. Although the district court did weigh the possibility of civil commitment, it found that, particularly given the nature of the charges against Sheikh, that possibility did not negate the government’s prosecutorial interests. Stating that “not every serious crime is equally serious,” the Fourth Circuit found that the government’s interest in combating terrorism is “an urgent objective of the highest order” and that the relevant criminal statute (§ 2339B) represents the “considered judgment of Congress and the Executive that providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization—even seemingly benign support— bolsters the terrorist activities of that organization.” Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit held that although the possibility of civil commitment mitigates one aspect of the government’s prosecutorial interest (i.e., ensuring Sheikh will not be released into the community), it did not address the additional prosecutorial interest of general deterrence that is achieved when “a person is convicted of a serious crime, thus deterring others from making the same mistake.”

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2