9th Circuit OKs Drugs for Terror-Threat Suspect

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Ninth Circuit has ruled that a schizophrenic former Transportation Security Administration agent who was arrested for calling in false terror threats to Los Angeles International Airport will receive psychotropic drugs to make him competent to stand trial.

Shortly after Nna Alpha Onuoha resigned from his job as a TSA screener at LAX in September 2013, he called the airport and told authorities to evacuate because he intended to “deliver a message” to the United States and the world. Onuoha had also left an envelope at TSA headquarters that turned out to contain an eight-page document titled “‘The End of America, The End of satan, we were not defeated” in which he discussed an incident that had led to a suspension.

Authorities evacuated TSA headquarters but not the airport, and when Onuoha was arrested later he claimed he had not intended to make a bomb threat.

As part of its attempt to try him on charges of giving false information, hoaxes and making telephonic threats, the government moved to medicate Onuoha involuntarily pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Sell v. United States. A federal judge granted the motion.

A Ninth Circuit panel intervened, however, ruling that giving Onuoha 300 milligrams of Haldol each month was not in his medical interest.

On remand, the federal judge again granted the government’s motion to medicate Onuoha. This time, the same Ninth Circuit panel affirmed.

The basis for Onuoha’s appeal this time is not whether the medication is in his medical interest, but rather whether the government has an important interest in prosecuting him. The sentencing guidelines for what Onuoha is accused of range from 27 to 33 months in prison – at the low end of the range of “serious” offenses for which the government may involuntarily medicate defendants.

But the panel determined in its previous opinion that the government has an interest in prosecuting Onuoha, and it found the same this time around.

“We placed heavy emphasis on the fact that Onuoha’s actions were reasonably perceived as threats of terrorism, and that they necessitated a significant security response,” the panel wrote in its unpublished memorandum issued March 31. “These considerations outweighed the relatively low guidelines range.”

Onuoha also argued the fact that he has spent longer than 33 months in prison weighs against the government’s interest in prosecution. But deterrence remains an important element of prosecution, the panel said.

“As explained in our earlier opinion, the government’s interest in obtaining a conviction extends not only to incapacitating Onuoha, but also to deterring others from making similar threats,” the panel wrote. “This interest in general deterrence holds firm regardless of the length of Onuoha’s pretrial detention. We note that generally deterring others from making threats of violence related to the nation’s transportation infrastructure remains an important goal for society.”

Furthermore, deterring Onuoha from making threats in the future may be important given that he may receive supervised release and that there “is support in the record for the notion that Onuoha’s threats were driven, at least in part, by mental illness,” the panel wrote.

Circuit Judges Ronald Gould and Marsha Berzon and U.S. District Judge George Steeh III, sitting by designation from the Eastern District of Michigan, made up the panel.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Central District of California did not return a request for comment Monday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California declined comment.

 

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