PORTLAND — State judges can force defendants to take medication against their will so they can stand trial, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The decision underscores a similar U.S. Supreme Court ruling and sets up a political battle over the rights of criminal suspects who also are patients committed to a mental hospital before trial.
In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court said judges must apply a four-factor test in determining whether to force medication on a suspect who is found mentally unfit to stand trial.
The judges have to deem the medication appropriate and unlikely to have side effects that would undermine the suspect’s ability to assist in his own defense. They also must determine there is no alternative and that the medication furthers government interests to see the issue taken to trial. Before Thursday’s decision, it was unclear whether that four-factor test meant Oregon trial court judges had the right to force unwilling patients to take medication.
“When a hospital determines that involuntary treatment is necessary to enable a defendant to regain trial capacity, we conclude that trial courts have the power to order that such treatment be administered,” Justice Martha L. Walters wrote in the 39-page ruling.
The case before the court was an appeal by James Lopes — found mentally unfit to stand trial on first-degree sex abuse charges — of an order that he be forcibly medicated. A hospital can forcibly medicate a patient if he is a danger to himself or others, or if he has a “grave disability.”
The hospital required a court order, and Lopes objected. He said he couldn’t be forced to take medication. A trial court can demand that a person who has a “substantial probability” to regain the capacity to stand trial be kept in the hospital. Otherwise, they must be freed or civilly committed to a psychiatric institution.
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bloch found that Lopes could regain his ability to stand trial. He ordered a psychiatric hospital to treat Lopes’ delusions with medication.
The Oregon Supreme Court found that Bloch could not force Lopes to take the medication because his case failed the four-factor test: Lopes had spent more time in the state mental hospital waiting for trial than he would have spent if convicted, so his trial did not further government interests. But in making the ruling, Walters enunciated that judges do have that right, if the suspect’s situation passes the four-factor test.
Unlike many other states, Oregon has no law specifically enumerating a judge’s right to force consumption of medication for trial purposes. The last time the Legislature took up the issue was 1971, when attention nationally focused on the use of electroconvulsive therapy in mental hospitals, in part because of the 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” set at an Oregon psychiatric hospital.
American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon director David Fidanque said he expects legislation on the issue to be proposed soon, and said the ACLU would fight against its implementation in the state.
“We believe the Oregon Constitution may require a higher bar than the federal Constitution does in terms of involuntary medication,” Fidanque said.
Oregon Department of Justice attorneys did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
“Just because (the U.S. Supreme Court decision) says you can do it, doesn’t mean the Legislature says you can do it,” said Lopes’ attorney, Laura Graser. “Forced medication is such a huge imposition on someone.”
Reach reporter Nigel Duara on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara
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