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Can the State of California Force A Defendant to Take Antipsychotic Drugs In Order to Make Him Competent to Stand Trial?

John Christiana was a California resident who had a long history of schizophrenia-related symptoms. Throughout his life, he also committed many crimes in the central region of California. In September 2008, for example, the state charged Christiana with grand theft, vandalism, and unlawful possession of a firearm. Then, in April of 2009, the state charged him with arson for starting a fire at the Schulman Grove Visitor Center in Bristlecone Pine Forest. At a trial for these crimes, four medical professionals evaluated his competence. All four noted that Christiana might have schizophrenia or a paranoid version of it, and three professionals determined him too incompetent to stand trial. With antipsychotic medication Christiana would be competent to stand trial.   The trial judge ordered Christiana to take the antipsychotic medication, but he refused to follow the order.

In California, the State has the right to administer antipsychotic medication when a defendant’s psychosis interferes with a trial. Sell v United States, a Supreme Court case, allowed states to medicate individuals too incompetent to stand trial. In Sell, the Court established a four-factor criteria that all states must follow: (1) Is the crime considered serious? (2) Will antipsychotic medication restore competency? (3) Are there less intrusive methods for restoring competency? (4) Would the drug produce serious side effects?

When Christiana appealed the judge’s order, the appeals court determined his Constitutional Right to Due Process had been violated even though he had refused to take any medication.  The Appellate Court found that the Sell factors 2 and 4 were not met. The experts had failed to  recommend a specific antipsychotic medication and further failed to consider what side effects would result from taking it.

The important takeaway is to know that the State of California can administer antipsychotic medication by force. However, the judge and prosecution must ensure the safety and necessity of such a procedure. Without meeting the Sell test, the rights of the mentally incompetent can be violated.


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