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Media Alerts - United States v. Chavez
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November 17, 2013
  United States v. Chavez
Headline: The Tenth Circuit reverses district court's order allowing the government to involuntarily medicate the defendant to make him competent to stand trial.

Area(s) of Law: Criminal law, Criminal procedure

Issue(s) Presented: Whether the district court erred in permitting the government to involuntarily medicate a defendant pursuant to United States v. Sell, 539 U.S. 166 (2003).

Brief Summary: Following an indictment, counsel for the defense and the government agreed that the defendant should be evaluated to determine whether or not he was competent to stand trial. A psychologist with the Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a report and concluded that the defendant suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was not competent to stand trial. The defendant refused to consent to treatment, and the government filed a motion for involuntary psychiatric treatment and compulsory medication. The district court granted the government's motion.

The defendant appealed this decision arguing that the government failed to satisfy the requirements for involuntarily medicating a defendant under the United States Supreme Court precedent United States v. Sell, 539 U.S. 166 (2003). After reviewing the testimony presented at the evidentiary hearing, the Tenth Circuit agreed and concluded that the district court had erred and vacated the district court's order

Extended Summary: Mr. Reydecel Chavez, a native of Mexico, was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, being an illegal alien in possession of a firearm. and reentry of a removed alien. After his indictment, all counsel agreed that Mr. Chavez need to be evaluated for competency. He was committed to a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri where Dr. Richart DeMier concluded that Mr. Chavez suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

In the competency report prepared by Dr. DeMier, the psychologist determined that with antipsychotic medication Mr. Chavez could be rendered competent. Mr. Chavez refused to consent to treatment, and the district court subsequently found Mr. Chavez incompetent to assist properly in his defense due to mental disease or defect. The government filed a motion for psychiatric treatment and compulsory medication in order to render Mr. Chavez competent to stand trial. At the evidentiary hearing, relying upon U.S. v. Sell, the district court granted the government's motion.

The controlling case is United States v. Sell, in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the government may involuntarily administer drugs to a mentally ill, non-dangerous defendant in order to render him competent to stand trial only upon a four-part showing. The government must establish that:
1) "important governmental interests are at state;"
2) the "involuntary medication will significantly further" those interests;
3) the "involuntary medication is necessary to further those interests;
4) the administration of the medication is medically appropriate" and in the defendant's best medical interests.

With regard to the second and fourth factors, Mr. Chavez argued that the district court had insufficient evidence to find both that involuntary medication would "significantly further" governmental interests and that forcibly medicating him would be "medically appropriate." At the evidentiary hearing, the government's sole witness was Dr. DeMier who testified that no individualized treatment plan for Mr. Chavez had been prepared. Mr. Chavez argued that by not requiring that the government prepare a treatment plan specific to him, it was impossible for the district court to determine that there would be any side effects or that involuntarily medicating him would be medically appropriate. Mr. Chavez's counsel objected at the hearing to the lack of an individualized treatment plan as being so open ended as to allow "experimentation" on Mr. Chavez. The district court overruled this objection and concluded that the government had met its burden under Sell.
The Tenth Circuit determined that the district court's decision was erroneous under Sell. The circuit reasoned that without an individualized treatment plan, a proper analysis could not be conducted to determine whether the government had satisfied the required factors. Furthermore, Dr. DeMier testified to the possible side effects and success rates of different antipsychotic drugs, but no particular drug or plan to administer such a drug had been provided to the court for Mr. Chavez. Without more information, the Tenth Circuit concluded that important matters under Sell could not be accurately considered by the district court.

In addition to the government failing to provide the court with an individualized treatment plan, the Tenth Circuit found the district court's order lacked necessary limitations on the government's administration of drugs to Mr. Chavez. Although the court in Sell did not identify what level of specificity is required in a court's order for involuntary medication, the circuit court determined that the need for a high level of detail is plainly contemplated by the required comprehensive findings. Specifically, the Tenth Circuit held than an order to involuntarily medicate a non-dangerous defendant solely in order to render him competent to stand trial must specify which medications might be administered and their maximum dosages.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Judges Briscoe, Seymour, Lucero

Date of Issued Opinion: November 13, 2013

Docket Number: 12-2126

Decided: Reversed and remanded


John T. Carlson, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Warren R. Williamson, Interim Federal Public Defender, with him on briefs), Denver, Colorado for Defendant - Appellant.

David N. Williams, Assistant United States Attorney (Kenneth J. Gonzales, United States Attorney, with him on the brief), Albuquerque, New Mexico, for Plaintiff - Appellee.

Author: Seymour

Case Alert Author:
Rikki-Lee G. Ulibarri, UNM School of Law, Class of 2014

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Barbara Bergman, UNM School of Law

    Posted By: Dawinder Sidhu @ 11/17/2013 04:55 PM     10th Circuit  

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