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Mental Competency

Competency to Stand Trial - Penal Code 1368 PC

California's law on a defendant's mental competency to stand trial, as outlined in Penal Codes 1367 and 1368 PC, places the responsibility on the judge. If the judge believes a defendant lacks the mental capacity to understand the legal proceedings and assist in their defense, they must state this belief in the court's record.

It is crucial to understand that the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a cornerstone of our legal system, covers the requirement that a defendant be mentally competent to stand trial. This amendment guarantees a fair trial to anyone charged with a misdemeanor or felony crime, emphasizing the importance of mental competency in our justice system.

Competency to Stand Trial  - Penal Code 1368 PC
California Penal Code 1368 PC outlines a defendant's mental competency to stand trial.

Simply put, the criminal justice system relies on the principle that defendants should be able to comprehend the charges against them and assist their attorneys effectively.

As noted, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial, which includes facing one's accusers and understanding the nature of the crime with which one is charged.

It is essential to ensure that individuals who are mentally unable to understand the legal proceedings and participate in their defense are not tried. Doing so not only results in an unjust trial but also violates their constitutional rights, particularly the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

The complete text of Penal Code 1368 PC outlines the procedure for assessing mental competency. It states, "(a) If, during the pendency of an action and before judgment, or during revocation proceedings for a violation of probation, mandatory supervision, post-release community supervision, or parole, a doubt arises in the mind of the judge as to the mental competence of the defendant, he or she shall state that doubt in the record and inquire of the attorney for the defendant whether, in the opinion of the attorney, the defendant is mentally competent.

If counsel does not represent the defendant, the court shall appoint counsel. At the request of the defendant or his or her counsel or upon its motion, the court shall recess the proceedings for as long as may be reasonably necessary to permit counsel to confer with the defendant and form an opinion on the defendant's mental competence.

(b) If counsel informs the court that he or she believes the defendant is or may be mentally incompetent, the court shall order that the question of the defendant's mental competence be determined in a hearing held pursuant to Sections 1368.1 and 1369. If counsel informs the court that he or she believes the defendant is mentally competent, the court may order a hearing. Any hearing shall be held in the superior court.

(c) Except as provided in Section 1368.1, when an order for a hearing into the defendant's present mental competence has been issued, all proceedings in the criminal prosecution shall be suspended until the question of the defendant's present mental competence has been determined.

If a jury has been impaneled and sworn to try the defendant, it shall be discharged only if it appears to the court that undue hardship to the jurors would result if the jury is retained on call. The jury shall be discharged if the defendant is declared mentally incompetent."

What is the Definition of Incompetence in Standing Trial?

In accordance with this principle, California law prohibits trying a defendant for a crime while they are considered mentally incompetent (Penal Code 1367 PC).

Incompetence in Standing Trial

If the defendant cannot meet the mental competence standard, the court must suspend criminal proceedings until the defendant's competency is restored.

Under PC 1367, a person shall not be tried or sentenced if deemed mentally incompetent. A defendant is considered mentally incompetent if, due to a mental health disorder or developmental disability, they are "unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner."

PC 1367 says, "(a) A person shall not be tried or adjudged to punishment or have their probation, mandatory supervision, post-release community supervision, or parole revoked while that person is mentally incompetent. A defendant is mentally incompetent for purposes of this chapter if, as a result of a mental health disorder or developmental disability, the defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner."

What About Judicial Response to Doubts About Competency?

PC 1368 outlines the specific protocols a judge must follow if any doubt arises regarding a defendant's mental competence during court proceedings.

If, at any point before judgment is pronounced, the judge begins to doubt the defendant's competence, the judge is required to:

  • Formally express this doubt on the criminal record; and
  • Consult with the defendant's attorney regarding the defendant's mental state.

At this point, the defense or the court can request a recess to allow the attorney to confer with the defendant to evaluate their mental competence.

If the attorney reports suspicions of incompetence, the court must order a hearing to determine the defendant's mental state. Even if the attorney asserts that the defendant is competent, the judge retains the authority to call for a competency hearing if there is sufficient reason.

What Are the Competency Hearing Procedures?

A competency hearing is critical in assessing whether a defendant is fit to stand trial. This hearing is conducted in the superior court, and all criminal proceedings are suspended until the competency question is resolved. The process typically involves the following steps:

  • Appointment of Experts: Mental health professionals are appointed to evaluate the defendant's mental state. They conduct interviews, review medical records, and administer psychological tests.
  • Expert Reports: The experts submit written reports detailing their findings and opinions on the defendant's competence to the court.
  • Hearing: During the hearing, the defense and prosecution may present evidence and call witnesses, including the appointed experts. The defendant's attorney can cross-examine the experts.
  • Judge's Decision: The judge determines the defendant's competence to stand trial based on the evidence presented.

If the judge finds the defendant competent, the criminal proceedings resume. However, if the defendant is found incompetent, the case enters a different phase focused on restoring the defendant's competence.

What are the Consequences of Being Ruled Incompetent to Stand Trial?

If a defendant is ruled incompetent to stand trial, the court will suspend the criminal proceedings and order them to undergo treatment to restore their competence.

This treatment can occur in a state hospital, a local mental health facility, or on an outpatient basis, depending on the severity of the defendant's condition and the court's assessment. Restoration of competence involves the following elements:

  • Treatment Plan: The defendant will receive a treatment plan designed to address the mental health issues that rendered them incompetent. This may include medication, therapy, education about the legal process, and other interventions.
  • Periodic Reviews: The court will periodically review the defendant's progress to determine if they have regained competence. Mental health professionals provide reports to the court on the defendant's condition.
  • Maximum Time Limits: California law limits how long a defendant can be held for competence restoration. Generally, this period is not to exceed three years or the maximum term of imprisonment for the most serious charge, whichever is shorter.

If the defendant remains incompetent after the maximum period for competence restoration, the court must decide on further action. This may include:

  • Civil Commitment: If the defendant poses a danger to themselves or others, the court may initiate civil commitment proceedings to place the defendant in a mental health facility for longer-term care.
  • Dismissal of Charges: In some cases, the charges against the defendant may be dismissed without prejudice, meaning they can be refiled if the defendant later regains competence.

Contact our California criminal defense lawyers for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles. CA.

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