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Riggins v. Nevada

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Title: Riggins v. Nevada  
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Riggins v. Nevada

Riggins v. Nevada
Argued January 15, 1992
Decided May 18, 1992
Full case name Riggins v. Nevada
Citations 504 U.S. 127 (more)
Prior history Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Nevada
The forcible medication of the petitioner on trial violated his rights guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority O'Connor, joined by Rehnquist, White, Blackmun, Stevens and Souter
Concurrence Kennedy
Dissent Thomas, joined by Scalia
Laws applied
Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments

Riggins v. Nevada, 504 U.S. 127 (1992) is a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court decided whether a mentally ill person can be forced to take antipsychotic medication while they are on trial to allow the state to make sure they remain competent during the trial.[1]


David Riggins went to the Nevada apartment of a man, Wade, who was later found stabbed to death. Approximately two days later, Riggins was arrested for the capital murder and robbery of Wade. After his arrest he complained of hearing voices and sleeplessness, telling the jail psychiatrist that he had taken Mellaril in the past. The psychiatrist prescribed him increasing doses of Mellaril at Riggins' request, until Riggins was taking 800 milligrams a day, considered a very high dose of that medication.[2][3]

Riggins was evaluated and found competent to stand trial, with one of the three evaluating psychiatrists dissenting. Riggins stated he planned to present an insanity defense and requested that the Mellaril be discontinued until after the trial so that the jury would see his mental state first hand rather than be given a false impression induced by the medication, which would deny him due process. The court heard testimony from three psychiatrists with differing opinions and then gave a one page decision denying Riggins' request but giving no rationale for the denial. Riggins testified on his own behalf during the trial, claiming that Wade was trying to kill him and that voices in his head told him that killing Wade was justified as self-defense. The jury found Riggins guilty of murder and robbery with a deadly weapon, and sentenced him to death.[3]


Riggins appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court on the grounds that forced administration of Mellaril denied him the ability to assist in his own defense and gave a false impression of his attitude, appearance, and demeanor at trial.[4] Riggins claimed that the forced medication was not justified, as the State had not demonstrated a need to administer Mellaril nor did it explore less restrictive alternatives to giving him 800 milligrams of the drug each day. However, the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed Riggins' convictions and death sentence. Riggins then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.[3]


The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that forced administration of antipsychotic medication during Riggins' trial violated his rights guaranteed under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.[5] A seven-member majority held that the state did not show that antipsychotic medication was medically appropriate and did not demonstrate that it considered less intrusive means in obtaining its goal of trying Riggins.[5][6]

The Court stated that Riggins' Eighth Amendment argument that the forcible administration of antipsychotic medication denied him the chance to show the jury his true mental state at the sentencing hearing was not raised in the petition for certiorari and therefore was not addressed by the court.[3]

The Court held, by a seven person majority, that a person awaiting trial has a valid reason, protected under the due process clause, to refuse antipsychotic drugs, see Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 210 and Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545. Therefore, once Riggins' requested termination of the medication, the State was obligated to establish both the need for the antipsychotic drug and its medical appropriateness for Riggins' safety and that of others as the less restrictive alternative available. If the state had done this, due process would have been satisfied. The State might have been able to justify the treatment, if medically appropriate, if it set forth that the adjudication of guilt or innocence could not be established by using less intrusive means. Since the trial court did not do this and allowed the drug's administration to continue without making any of the determinations stated above, it is very likely that this error violated Riggins' trial rights established by the Constitution. However, this is only speculative as there is no way to know what the outcome would have been if the proper course had been followed.[3]


This decision highlighted two factors not previously emphasized in cases involving involuntary medication. First, the involuntary treatment must be the least intrusive treatment for restoration of competence. Second, the proposed treatment must be medically appropriate for the individual's safety as well as that of others.[7]

In Washington v. Harper the individual protesting the involuntary medication was already incarcerated. The court suggested in this case that a competent person has the right to refuse if the medication is administered for other than treatment reasons to a person not dangerous or extremely ill, but it accepted the institution's procedures for making such treatment decisions. However, Riggins was not convicted at the time he was involuntarily medicated. In Riggins v. Nevada the court said that not only had the medication to be a medically appropriate means of attaining an important state objective such as competency, but the medication must be the least intrusive means of attaining the objective. However, although the treatment must be the least intrusive (for example, to allow the individual to retain a clear head to consult with his attorney as well as to avoid medication side effects), the court did not say that involuntary medication is never appropriate to achieve the state's goal.[2]

See also


  1. ^ "Riggins v. Nevada". Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 2007-12-21. 
  2. ^ a b Robert G. Meyer. Law and Mental Health: A Case-Based Approach. Guiford Press. Retrieved 2007-12-21. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "David Riggins, Petitioner v. Nevada - Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Nevada]". New York Times - FindLaw. Retrieved 2007-12-21. 
  4. ^ "Riggins v. Nevada - Syllabus". Retrieved 2007-12-23. 
  5. ^ a b "Riggins v. Nevada - U.S. Supreme Court". PubMed - West's Supreme Court Report. May 18, 1992. Retrieved 2007-12-21. 
  6. ^ "Riggins v. Nevada - Opinion of the Court". Retrieved 2007-12-23. 
  7. ^ Gregory B. Leong, MD. "Sell v. U.S.: Involuntary Treatment Case or Catalyst for Change?". Retrieved 2007-12-06. 

External links

  • S Supreme Court Center> US Supreme Court Cases & Opinions> Volume 504 > Riggins v. Nevada 504 U.S. 12
  • Riggins v. Nevada case transcript
  • Riggins v. Nevada - Opinion
  • Riggins v. Nevada, 504 U.S. 127, 2 (1992)
  • Medicating Incompetent Defendants against Their Will to Restore Competency: Sell v. United States Changes Current Practice
  • American Bar Association - Forced Medication of Legally Incompetent Prisoners: A Primer
  • Summary New York State Defenders Association
  • Oyez
  • Full Text of Volume 504 of the United States Reports at
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