Competence and Forced Medication (Part 1)

by | Sep 24, 2019 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County, Uncategorized

On July 31, 2019, a three-judge appellate panel decided the Somerset County case of State v. R.G. The principal issue under N.J.S.A 2C:4-4 was the standard for compelling a defendant to take anti-psychotic medication in order to make him competent to stand trial.

Judge Suter wrote for the panel and held in relevant part: We have not previously addressed whether a defendant charged with a crime, who is not competent to stand trial but who is competent to make medical decisions and has refused to take antipsychotic medication, can be involuntarily medicated to restore competency to stand trial.

The issue was addressed only briefly in a Law Division opinion. State v. Otero (Law Div. 1989). And, while we are mindful other states have enacted legislation to guide trial courts in these situations, New Jersey has not. Nevertheless, because we are satisfied the State’s application to compel medication here fails under the Sell test, we need not determine whether our State Constitution provides greater individual protection than does the Federal Constitution described in Sell. Instead, we reject the State’s arguments because we agree with the trial judge’s determination that Sell‘s first factor is not informed by defendant’s maximum exposure but by defendant’s probable sentence if convicted.

A trial court, in applying the Sell test, should also consider the effects of the medication on a defendant’s right to a fair trial. Medical experts should testify about how the medication is likely to affect a defendant’s ability to communicate with counsel, to testify, to react rapidly to events in the trial, and to express emotions before the jury. See Sell, 539 U.S. at 185; see also Riggins, 504 U.S. at 137. The effect on physical appearance also should be considered. See Riggins, 504 U.S. at 137. It then is for the trial court to determine if a defendant’s right to a fair trial will be adversely affected.

Under Sell, the State has an important interest in “bringing to trial an individual accused of a serious crime” but “special circumstances” might lessen the importance of the State’s interest. 539 U.S. at 180. In arguing that there were no special circumstances that lessened the importance of the State’s interest, the State urges us to consider that the maximum sentence for this third-degree crime is five years, and that because this was a crime of domestic violence, the presumption of non-incarceration did not apply.

The Appellate Division is applying a basic principle of federalism that is lost on many judges and attorneys. The federal constitution provides the floor of our constitutional rights while the state constitutions provide the ceiling. If the federal constitution does not allow for forced medication under these facts, our state constitution must compel the same result.