The Defendant Must be Competent
A person cannot be tried or adjudged to punishment while that person is mentally incompetent.
With ‘Competency to Stand Trial’, a defendant is mentally incompetent if, as a result of a mental disorder or developmental disability, or other condition, the defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or is not able to assist counsel in conducting a rational defense.
The law in California states that a defendant in a criminal case must be able to understand the case and court proceedings. In other words, he or she must be competent.
Your Attorney Cannot Decide for You
The defendant must be able to assist his or her attorney in defending the case.
Ultimately it’s the defendant who conveys to the attorney which route they would like to take in their case, whether it’s to pursue a dismissal, take a plea deal, or push towards a trial. If the defendant for any reason cannot make a decision or communicate rationally to his attorney, then the attorney is at a loss to proceed.
In these situations, the court will take measures to ensure that the defendant is competent to be tried with a special hearing called a “competency hearing“.
What Defines ‘Incompetence’?
The defendant is mentally incompetent to stand trial, or adjudged to punishment if he cannot do all of the following:
Competency to Understand Proceedings
- Understand the criminal proceeding against him or her
- Understand his or her own status in the criminal proceedings
- Make important decisions that arise in the course of adjudication: how to plead, considering plea agreements, strategy of defense
Competency to Assist Counsel
- Understanding of criminal charges
- Understand the implications of being a defendant
- Understand the adversarial nature of the proceedings
- Understand the role of the defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, and jury
- Ability to work with his or her attorney and relate pertinent information
If the defendant in a criminal case does not fully understand any of the above, then he or she may be ruled ‘incompetent to stand trial’ and the criminal court proceedings will be halted.
Request for a Competency Hearing
It is the duty of the attorney to declare a ‘doubt’ if he or she thinks that their client is incompetent for any reason.
At any time after the prosecution begins a criminal case, prior to sentencing the defendant, or at any time after probation or supervised release prior to completion of the sentence, the criminal defense attorney, or the judge may file a motion for a hearing to determine the mental competence of the defendant.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees a fair trial to everyone charged with a crime. When a legitimate question arises as to the competency of the accused, he or she has a right to a hearing to determine fitness to stand trial. All trial courts have authority to order a psychological evaluation of all defendants.
What Happens at Competency Hearing
In Los Angeles, the case will be transferred to the Mental Health Courthouse which is responsible for conducting competency hearings.
Prior to the date of the hearing, the court usually orders a psychiatric or psychological examination of the defendant be conducted by doctors, and that a psychiatric or psychological report be filed with the court, pursuant to the provisions of U.S. Code Section 4247(b) and (c).
Defendant is found ‘Competent’
The qualified psychiatrist or psychologist appointed to evaluate the defendant would need to show enough evidence that the defendant is not competent to stand trial. If the evidence does not prove incompetence, the defendant is found competent and the case will return to the original judge and will proceed normally.
Defendant is found ‘Incompetent’
If the defendant with the help of his or her criminal defense attorney is found incompetent to stand trial, they may be sent to a hospital in lieu of prison when it comes to cases involving felony charges.
In many cases, the Court’s action will depend on the conduct alleged in the underlying offense. Judges may be more likely to order that a defendant be committed when the underlying crime is a violent crime or a sex offense.
California Penal Code section 1370 clearly contemplates that criminal charges against a defendant not restored to competence will be dismissed in the furtherance of justice under Penal Code section 1385.
If a defendant is facing more than three years in state prison, a capable criminal defense attorney may be able to avoid prison altogether if the defendant is found to be mentally incompetent. In turn, a finding of mental incompetence may lead to the eventual dismissal of criminal charges if there is no possibility that the defendant will regain competency.
However, if a criminal defendant is found competent at some point during their hospitalization (essentially cured of their mental illness), a court has the discretion to commence criminal proceedings and defendant may face a criminal trial if the matter is not resolved by plea negotiations with the Court or District Attorney.
Incompetence is not Insanity
A defendant’s competency to stand trial is sometimes confused with the pleading insanity. These are two separate motions entirely and are treated as such.
- Insanity is a defense that can be raised at trial if there is a question as to whether or not the defendant was aware or in control of his actions at the time the crime was committed.
- Competency relates to the defendant’s ability to stand trial at all for his or her actions.
A defendant who is found to be competent can still raise a valid insanity defense at trial.
In most cases, a defendant can suffer from the same mental illness or condition both when the crime was committed and when he or she is brought to court. In these situations, the defendant would have to be made competent before he or she could be brought to trial. If made competent, the defendant may have a valid insanity defense.
In many cases, the prosecutor may understand that the offense occurred as the result of a mental illness and may agree to consider treatment in lieu of more severe punishment.
We Can Help
Issues regarding mental incompetency in California criminal cases can be very complicated, but as outlined, there are several avenues an experienced criminal attorney can explore to successfully defend a person dealing with mental disorders.
If you or a loved one are facing criminal charges after being arrested in Los Angeles, or Southern California, you need to hire an attorney who has long-standing professional relationships with Judges and District Attorneys, as well as proven track record. Don’t panic. We’re here to help. Get a FREE consultation.
Call Us: 310-274-6529
Seppi Esfandi is an expert in Criminal Law who has over 17 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.