Government Fails to Carry Burden to Forcibly Medicate Incompetent Defendant

United States v. Ruiz-Gaxiola, 623 F.3d 684 (9th Cir. 2010)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of the trial court and found that the Government did not meet its burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence the Sell factors authorizing treatment of a defendant over his objection.

The defendant in this case, a Mexican citizen with an extensive criminal history of drug offenses, was charged with illegal reentry into the United States. Diagnosed with a delusional disorder, grandiose type, he was found incompetent to stand trial and sent to Butner Correctional Institution in North Carolina for treatment. At an administrative hearing, the defendant was found not to be a danger to himself or others in the institutional setting and did not suffer from a grave disability justifying involuntary medication. Thus the sole issue before the court was whether the defendant could be medicated over objection for the purpose of restoring his competency to stand trial.

Under Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003), the government must prove by clear and convincing evidence each of the factors enunciated by the United States Supreme Court: 1) that important governmental interests are at stake; 2) involuntary medication will significantly further that interest, i.e. it is substantially likely to restore defendant to competency and substantially unlikely to cause side effects that would impair significantly his ability to assist in his defense; 3) involuntary medication is necessary to further those governmental interests; and 4) treatment with medication is medically appropriate.

The magistrate judge considered the evidence and concluded that the government had proved its case. The Court of Appeals reversed finding that this case does not present one of those rare circumstances permitting medication over objection to render the defendant competent to stand trial and the government had not met its burden under Sell’s second and fourth prong. Although the defendant had never been treated with antipsychotic medications, the Court held that the government must prove what the medication will do, not what it is designed to do. The appellate court discounted the testimony of the government’s experts and relied on the testimony of the defendant’s expert who testified that the medication was likely to worsen his rare and difficult to treat mental disorder and increase his delusional thinking, especially based upon his inferiority feelings and hypersensitivity to powerlessness. It found that treatment with haldol would also unduly subject him to the risk of tardive dyskinesia. The court therefore found that treatment with medication was medically inappropriate.

Found in DMHL Volume 30 Issue 3