Tourette's Syndrome and the Law

J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. Winter 2006;18(1):86-95. doi: 10.1176/jnp.18.1.86.


Diminished legal responsibility and mental capacity have been used in defense of individuals with neurological disorders charged with legal misdemeanors, including criminal behavior. The purpose of this report is to 1) critically examine the mechanisms that may predispose patients with Tourette's syndrome (TS) to potentially, legally liable behaviors; 2) report the results of a nation-wide review of state, federal, and appellate cases involving TS; and 3) instigate awareness within the professional legal community regarding unrecognized organically-based behaviors that may predispose TS patients to unwanted legal disciplinary action. TS is a common neurological movement disorder of childhood onset associated with behavioral comorbidities, including impulse control problems, exhibition of obscene language or gestures, rage attacks, inappropriate obsessions, and other behaviors. To our knowledge, there are no studies (to date) addressing the potential impact of TS on the legal system. A comprehensive review of the neurobehavioral mechanisms underlying comorbid issues in TS is outlined. A comprehensive review of all cases tried in state and federal courts between 1985 and 2003, in which TS was somehow implicated, was conducted using the Westlaw database. As of October, 2003, TS was implicated in more than 150 cases found in the federal and state databases, 21 of which were criminal. Other cases are categorized as civil rights, criminal, education, family, labor, and social security cases. The authors conclude that TS rarely leads to criminal behavior, but patients with TS who have behavioral comorbidities are at risk of being involved with the legal system. The medical-legal community must learn to recognize the vulnerability of this patient population to potential mistreatment by the courts of justice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnosis
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / diagnosis
  • Attention Deficit and Disruptive Behavior Disorders / psychology
  • Behavior, Addictive / diagnosis
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology
  • Child
  • Crime / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / diagnosis
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / psychology
  • Expert Testimony / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Insanity Defense*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / psychology
  • Risk Factors
  • Tourette Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Tourette Syndrome / psychology*
  • United States