A federal appeals court grappled with how much latitude prison officials have to forcibly use psychiatric drugs on the man accused in the January Tucson shooting rampage.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel may address the broader questions of whether pre-trial arrestees not convicted of a crime must be treated differently than convicted inmates already serving long prison terms.
Also at issue is a question of when the interests of prison authorities trump the due process rights of the accused to be free from forced psychiatric medication if a lesser control will work, such as tranquilizers or physical restraints.
On another level, the fine legal line being drawn here may define when the safety interest of the prison ends and the right of the inmate, facing a potential death sentence, to be free of medication that would make him competent to stand trial and thus face execution. Use of psychiatric medicine may make a prisoner competent to stand trial, while withholding the drugs could leave him in an incompetent mental state.
Loughner is currently being forcibly medicated but wants to end the treatments.
The initial appeal heard Tuesday is based on prison officials’ claims that he was a danger to other inmates. The judges did allow tranquilizers for 30 days in July.
But just last week a second challenge by Loughner was based on prison officials medicating him as a danger to himself. That is a separate appeal now moving through the 9th Circuit and was not part of Tuesday’s argument.
Judge Marsha Berzon, who presided over the panel, asked whether the current claim of danger to other inmates may be moot, though the underlying question remains. She wondered if the court should simply wait to rule on the second appeal.
But Judge Clifford Wallace expressed concern over whether the panel really needs to determine the constitutionality of the underlying prison regulation on forced medication.
He also said it may be in the prisoner’s liberty interests “never to get healed because he would face a capital case. It might be better for him to be locked away in solitary rather than get medication, that is the question,” Wallace said.
Berzon also questioned whether an administrative framework could be created that would allow for quick and fair adjudication of the medical questions without running back to the appeals court in what may be a protracted legal system.
The panel did not rule. A written decision is likely to be quick given the immediate medical questions surrounding Loughner’s treatment.
Loughner is accused of shooting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, including Arizona federal Judge John M. Roll, in a Tucson shopping center in January.
Case: U.S. v. Loughner, No. 11-10339 (9th Circuit)