Home Part of States Newsroom
Appeals court rejects forced medication of mentally ill criminal defendant


Appeals court rejects forced medication of mentally ill criminal defendant

Apr 08, 2024 | 1:51 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
Appeals court rejects forced medication of mentally ill criminal defendant
Somerset County prosecutors asked a state appeals court to affirm a lower court's order allowing a mentally ill criminal defendant to be medicated against his will in order to restore his competency for trial. The appeals panel refused and reversed the lower court ruling. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Courts weighing whether to medicate mentally ill criminal defendants against their will to make them competent to stand trial must prioritize their rights to a fair trial and bodily autonomy, a state appellate court ruled Monday.

The three-judge panel reversed a lower court’s order last August to medicate Juan Hector Padilla without his consent so that he could face trial on charges related to a 2020 blaze in Bound Brook that caused $52 million in damages and injured a firefighter.

A precedential U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2003 allows the government to forcibly administer antipsychotic drugs to a mentally ill criminal defendant to restore competency — but only if it is medically appropriate; will significantly advance governmental interests, such as bringing to trial someone accused of a serious crime; there are no alternative, less intrusive methods available; and it won’t have side effects that undermine a trial’s fairness.

Somerset County prosecutors failed to show that medicating Padilla against his will meets those conditions, especially the Constitution’s guarantee to a fair trial, Superior Court Judge Lisa Rose wrote.

“The State failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence it was substantially unlikely that the side effects of antipsychotic medication will interfere with defendant’s ability to assist his attorney and the presentation of his defense,” Rose wrote.

The ruling caps more than four years of competency hearings for Padilla, who is accused of setting fire to a six-story building under construction. The flames, fanned by wind, leapt across the street and burned other structures, and authorities charged Padilla with burglary, aggravated arson, aggravated assault, and related offenses stemming from the seven-alarm inferno.

Padilla, who has “a significant history” of mental illness, hospitalizations, and treatment since early adolescence, spent two years in jail after his arrest on the day of the fire and was transferred in 2022 to a psychiatric hospital in Trenton, where he remains committed, according to the ruling.

He has repeatedly refused medication during that time, the ruling notes. His attorneys appealed the lower court ruling allowing his forced medication, citing his constitutional rights to freedom from unwanted medical treatment and a fair trial.

Rose cited another U.S. Supreme Court ruling in siding with Padilla’s attorneys.

“The side effects of antipsychotic drugs can hamper the attorney-client relation, preventing effective communication and rendering the defendant less able or willing to take part in his defense. The State interferes with this relation when it administers a drug to dull cognition,” justices wrote in that 1992 ruling.