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United States v. James

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 16, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
v.
SUSAN KIRCHOFF JAMES, also known as Susan James, also known as Susan Kirchoff, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

          Before JOLLY, HO, and ENGELHARDT, Circuit Judges.

          JAMES C. HO, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Forced medication to ensure that a mentally troubled criminal defendant is competent to stand trial implicates profound liberty interests under the Due Process Clause. To protect those interests, the Supreme Court has established a four-prong test that prosecutors must satisfy before a court may compel the medication of the accused. See Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003).

         To date, however, neither the Supreme Court nor this court have stated what burden of proof the government must carry under the four-prong test. But our sister circuits overwhelmingly agree that the government must establish the four factors by clear and convincing evidence, and not just by a preponderance of the evidence. The parties here agree as well. We now join our sister circuits and adopt the same burden of proof today.

         Because it is not clear from the record what burden of proof the district court applied here, and because of the sensitivity of the interests involved, we vacate and remand so that the district court can apply the clear and convincing evidence standard accordingly.

         I.

         Susan James allegedly threatened to kill her aunt and uncle in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). After she was arrested and taken into custody, the district court held a hearing to determine whether James was competent to stand trial, in light of her stated belief that everyone involved in this prosecution, including her own lawyer, was conspiring against her. Prior to the February 7, 2018, hearing, James underwent a court-ordered psychiatric and psychological evaluation conducted by Dr. Tennille Warren-Phillips, a licensed psychologist, at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) federal detention center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Warren-Phillips diagnosed James with General Personality Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but nevertheless initially concluded that she was competent to stand trial.[1]

         James's attorney, however, was concerned about her own fraught interactions with James. So she requested an independent evaluation.

         The independent evaluation conducted by Dr. Loretta Sonnier, a forensic psychiatrist, concluded that James was not competent to stand trial. As reflected in her December 21, 2017 report, Dr. Sonnier diagnosed James with "schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type"-a condition marked by "fixed false beliefs" that "affect her judgment." Dr. Sonnier further concluded that psycho-tropic medication would be "substantially likely" to render James competent to stand trial.

         After a hearing held on February 7, 2018, the district court found James was not competent to stand trial.

         James was then sent to a medical facility in an effort to restore her competency. Dr. Hayley Blackwood, a forensic psychologist, informed the court of her conclusion that James suffered from Delusional Disorder, Persecutory Type, and would need to be medicated to stand trial. In a preliminary letter submitted to the court, Dr. Blackwood said: "[W]e believe there is an increased likelihood that with [psychotropic medication], [James] could be restored to competency to stand trial in the foreseeable future." She repeated this conclusion in her full report to the court.

         The BOP held an administrative hearing and reaffirmed Dr. Blackwood's conclusions. Dr. Judith Cherry, who oversaw the hearing, concluded that "[a]ntipsychotic medication is [] recognized as a safe and standard treatment for Delusional Disorder. The evidence presented is clear, and persuasive that involuntary treatment with antipsychotic medication is medically appropriate and the only viable option to restore Ms. James to mental competence to stand trial."

         James consistently refused consent to be medicated. So the government requested a hearing under Sell to determine whether it could ...


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