Competancy to Stand Trial for Criminal Acts (Part 1 of 3)

Competancy to Stand Trial

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time designed to draw attention to the impact of mental illnesses and suicide in America. In recognition of this, this blog post will be one of three blog posts focusing on the impact that mental health on a person’s criminal case. Depending on the mental condition or impairment, when the condition or impairment manifests, and the effects of the condition or impairment, a person’s criminal case may result in an acquittal of the criminal charges and/or committal of the person to a mental health facility. This post will focus on what happens when a mental condition or impairment impacts the criminal defendant’s competancy to stand trial.

Describing Competancy to Stand Trial

competancy to stand trialA person must be competent in order to stand trial. The reason for this is more philosophical in nature than legal. A person who is not competent to stand trial typically cannot assist his or her attorney in preparing for trial, thereby unfairly increasing the likelihood of a conviction. Not only this, but if a conviction does result the incompetent person is unlikely to be able to understand or appreciate the significance of being convicted and/or any punishment that the sentencing court might impose. It is for these reasons that courts require a person to be competent in order to stand trial.

When speaking of competancy to stand trial, attention is paid more to specific tasks and knowledge than to the results of intelligence and/or diagnostic tests. A person suffering from a low IQ or serious mental conditions can nevertheless be found competent if he or she possesses certain understandings and knowledge. Conversely, a person may be found not competent to stand trial even though he or she may be of average intelligence and not suffer from any serious mental condition.

When evaluating a person’s competency, the person conducting the evaluation ill usually attempt to measure the person’s understanding or knowledge of:

  • The roles of basic courtroom personnel (the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, the defense attorney);

  • The nature and severity of the charges brought against the person. The person does not need to possess a detailed legal understanding of the charges and the elements needed to be proven; however, the person should be able to understand whether he or she is charged with a serious crime and what a person does to get charged with that type of crime (for example, if a person is charged with committing “battery” he or she should be able to understand and articulate that such charges are brought when one person hits or strikes another person); and

  • Basic defense strategies, such as knowing what a plea agreement is and how the person intends to defend him- or herself against the charges filed against him or her.

How Does a Person Raise the Issue of His or Her Competancy to Stand Trial?

The issue of competency is one that must generally be raised before trial. While the defendant is usually the party that raises the issue of competency, in many jurisdictions competency can be raised as an issue by any party (even the judge, in some situations). Once the issue of competency is raised, most jurisdictions require the individual to submit to a competency evaluation conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist employed by the state. The case is effectively stopped until the evaluation is completed. The defendant also has the ability to pay for his or her own competency evaluation by a professional of his or her own choosing. Once the evaluations are completed and the professional(s) submit their reports, the matter is scheduled for a hearing. If the person is found to be competent to stand trial, then the case proceeds forward. If the person is found not competent to stand trial, then the person may be committed to a competency program at a state mental health facility. These programs are designed to provide care and treatment for the person so that they might eventually obtain competancy to stand trial. Contact experienced attorneys for professional defense.