Hot Docs: SCOTUS to decide whether Fifth Amendment protects against testimony by court-ordered psychiatrist

February 27, 2013

Psychiatrist exam in courtIt is commonly known that the Fifth Amendment protects against the compelled self-incrimination of a criminal defendant, and that, in practice, this means that the state cannot either force a defendant to testify or to admit to a criminal act if testifying voluntarily.

What is not so well understood, even among legal experts, is whether the Fifth Amendment protects against the use by the state of a court-ordered mental evaluation of the defendant.

Luckily, the Supreme Court agreed on Monday to address that question in Kansas v. Cheever.

Cheever is an appeal from the Kansas State Supreme Court’s ruling that found that defendant Scott Cheever’s Fifth Amendment rights were violated by the state’s use of testimony from Cheever’s court-mandated psychiatric evaluator who “virtually put words into Cheever’s mouth.”

The Kansas high court then overturned Cheever’s capital murder convictions (and sentence to death) and remanded the case for a new trial.

The mental evaluation of Cheever was ordered by the trial court because the defendant had raised the possibility of that he would assert a defense based on mental condition – namely, voluntary intoxication.

The intoxication was from methamphetamine use.  At the time of the alleged crime, Cheever was at an acquaintance’s house “cooking and ingesting methamphetamine” with several others when they received a telephone tip that “the police were on their way to the house to look for Cheever” (with a warrant for a parole violation).

Cheever hid upstairs, and the police arrived and searched the house.  One officer eventually began to search upstairs, at which point Cheever stepped out of hiding and shot the officer, killing him.

Hot Doc: Kansas v. Cheever

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight – National Litigation

As stated above, Cheever was convicted after the state used “devastating” testimony from his court-ordered psychiatrist.

The trial court was constitutionally allowed to mandate the evaluation because of Cheever’s asserted mental condition defense – a rule that has emerged from a line of rulings on the issue.

The exact rules can get pretty cluttered, so I’ll just spell them out as plainly as I can.

First, if a defendant files a notice of intent to assert a mental disease or defect defense, the Fifth Amendment does not prevent the court from ordering the defendant to submit to a mental examination (as held in two U.S. Supreme Court rulings: 1981’s Estelle v. Smith and 1987’s Buchanan v. Kentucky).

The Fifth Circuit held in Battie v. Estelle, however, that “consent to the examination, however, does not waive the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege so as to entitle the State to use the examination against the defendant at trial.”  Instead, waiver “does not occur unless or until the defendant presents evidence at trial that he or she lacked the requisite criminal intent due to a mental disease or defect.”

The Kansas Supreme Court found that “Cheever’s evidence showed only that he suffered from a temporary mental incapacity due to voluntary intoxication,” and that “it was not evidence of a mental disease or defect” under Kansas law.

Thus, no waiver occurred and the use of testimony by the court-ordered psychiatrist was a violation of Cheever’s Fifth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court will be reviewing the case based on the question presented by the State of Kansas, which asks whether the Fifth Amendment protects against the state’s use of “evidence from a court-ordered mental evaluation of the defendant” to rebut the defendant’s mental state defense.

Notably, there was no distinction made between “voluntary intoxication” and “mental state or defect,” a distinction that the State of Kansas argued was incorrectly applied by the Kansas Supreme Court, in that it is a state law distinction in a federal law analysis (according to Kansas, federal law makes no such distinction).

Still, the question presented is one never explicitly addressed by the Court before, and it would resolve a split in the federal circuits (albeit an uneven one disfavoring defendants).

Since it has been so long since SCOTUS has even heard a case about the use of evidence from a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, we won’t have a very good idea about how the Court will rule on this until after oral arguments, which will likely be sometime at the beginning of the Court’s next term (between October and December).

Although the decision will undoubtedly impact the use of mental state defenses and evidence nationwide, the grimmer consequence of the ruling is the fact that the Court’s decision will almost certainly determine whether Cheever receives the death sentence or life imprisonment.