Riggins v. Nevada, 504 U.S. 127 (1992)

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For some time many courts barred trial of mentally ill defendants who were found competent to stand trial solely because they were taking antipsychotic medication. Then, from the late 1960s to the 1990s, most courts held that forcible medication of criminal defendants is permissible if the medication is necessary to restore the individual to competency, given the state’s interest in prosecuting those charged with crime. In Riggins v. Nevada, the U.S. Supreme Court took a more cautious stance, holding that when the state wants to medicate a defendant to restore competence, it must establish that the medication is medically appropriate, the least restrictive means of restoring competency, and appropriately titrated so that it does not diminish the defendant’s ability to consult with his attorney, follow the trial process, or testify. Because the trial judge had not been sensitive to these issues during Riggins’s capital murder trial (despite the fact that Riggins had received heavy doses of antipsychotic medication prior to and during the trial), the Supreme Court remanded the case, and strongly suggested the conviction should be reversed. Riggins is an important protection against the state’s misuse or overuse of powerful antipsychotic medication, which can often have sedative effects and also can have other very serious side effects. In a later decision, Sell v. United States (2003), the Court further restricted use of these medications for purposes of competency restoration, holding that forcible medication is permissible only when the defendant is dangerous to self or others orwhen the state’s interest in prosecution is ‘‘compelling.’’ The latter situation, the Court indicated, ‘‘may be rare.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Klein, Dora W., Trial Rights and Psychotropic Drugs: The Case against Administering Involuntary Medications to a Defendant during Trial, Vanderbilt Law Review 55 (2002): 165–218.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Sell v. United States, 123 S.Ct. 274 (2003)

See also Dusky v. U.S, 362 U.S. 402 (1960); Insanity Defense