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Can PTSD Be Used as a Defense Against Criminal Charges?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 18, 2023

Suppose you are a person suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and find yourself facing criminal charges in California. In that case, it's only natural to question whether your condition might have influenced your actions. 

PTSD is a mental illness that is triggered by experiencing or observing some traumatic event. Some possible symptoms might include nightmares, high anxiety, or flashbacks. PTSD is a severe mental health condition that is often found in military combat veterans.

Suppose you are charged with a domestic violence issue, but you believe you committed the crime because you were quick to anger due to your PTSD. In that case, is it possible to use your PTSD to challenge the criminal charge?

Can PTSD Be Used as a Defense Against Criminal Charges?
It may be possible to use a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) defense against criminal charges.

The answer will always depend on the case details and the severity level of your mental health condition. Simply put, in some cases, PTSD can be used to defend against a criminal charge, receive a lighter sentence, obtain probation, or enter California's military diversion program.

Sometimes, a person's PTSD is so severe that it renders them mentally insane. If this occurs and you commit a crime, you might be able to use your PTSD to support an insanity defense, which is a valid defense to challenge criminal charges. 

The defense could work if you were permanently insane or temporarily insane when you committed a crime. California law says that you are legally insane if, at the time that you committed a crime, you did not understand the nature of your act or could not distinguish between right and wrong. 

Notably, however, you have the burden of proving insanity by a preponderance of the evidence, which means it was more likely than not that you were insane at the time of your crime, often established by expert testimony. 

Suppose your criminal defense lawyer can prove insanity. In that case, you would be committed to a mental health treatment facility instead of jail or state prison. Let's discuss PTSD further below.

Understanding PTSD

PTSD can indeed trigger behaviors you'd ordinarily refrain from under normal circumstances, and it's crucial to understand how this might impact your legal defense. Can you claim PTSD as a valid defense against the charges? And if so, how might it affect the outcome of your case? 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a severe mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. It can manifest in symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and intrusive thoughts about the distressing event. 

In certain circumstances, PTSD can play a role in committing a crime. This occurs when the individual's PTSD symptoms are so severe that they significantly impair their ability to understand their actions or the consequences. 

It's important to note that while PTSD may influence behavior, it does not excuse criminal actions but instead provides context to the defendant's mental state at the time of the alleged crime.

When Can PTSD Be Used as a Defense?

In California, like many other states, you may be able to use PTSD as part of your defense strategy under specific conditions. Sometimes, you can present mitigating circumstances before a court to reduce a charge or lessen the severity of a penalty.

This is because if you were suffering from a mental health problem, your criminal behavior is not considered as blameworthy as if you had no health issue. Let's look at these scenarios more closely:

  • Insanity Defense: One of the most common situations for the PTSD defense is if your PTSD symptoms were so severe at the time of the alleged crime that they rendered you mentally insane at the time. For this defense to prevail, your attorney must be able to show that you met the legal criteria for insanity at the time—namely, that you could not understand the nature of your actions or distinguish right from wrong. This defense may require expert testimony or for you to undergo a rigorous psychological evaluation. Bear in mind that while an insanity defense may keep you from going to prison or jail, you may be committed to a mental institution instead.
  • Diminished Capacity: Another way PTSD might be used in defense is through a claim of diminished capacity. This means that your mental state at the time of the crime was such that you were unaware of your actions. For example, if you were reliving a flashback and acting out in kind.
  • Duress or Necessity: In some cases, if a person with PTSD commits a crime because they believe there is an immediate threat to their safety, they might use defenses of duress or necessity. Again, proving this requires substantial evidence and expert testimony.
  • Mitigating Circumstance: In situations where PTSD did not render you insane, you may be able to claim that the condition still influenced your decisions and choices. While this approach would not typically result in a dismissal of the charges, it might be used as a mitigating circumstance to reduce your penalty.

In many cases, you might be able to present evidence of PTSD to get probation.  Under California law, if you are convicted of a crime, and before sentencing, a trial court may consider whether you committed that crime because of sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse, or mental health problems related to military service.

When May PTSD Not Be Used as a Defense?

There are also situations where PTSD would not be considered a valid defense:

  • Lack of Diagnosis: If you have not been diagnosed with PTSD by a qualified medical professional, you can't claim it as a defense.
  • Pre-Meditation: If the crime was premeditated or planned, PTSD is unlikely to be considered a valid defense. This is because the defense relies on the argument that the defendant's mental state at the time of the crime was influenced by their PTSD symptoms.
  • Non-Severe Symptoms: If the PTSD symptoms were not severe enough to significantly impair your ability to understand your actions or the consequences, the defense is unlikely to hold up in court.

What Are the Possible Outcomes of a Successful PTSD Defense?

If you can convince a judge or jury that your PTSD played a vital role in the commission of the crime for which you are charged, it may result in one or more of the following outcomes:

  • Acquittal: If the court determines that your PTSD was so severe that it significantly impaired your ability to understand your actions, you may be acquitted of the charges—but it could also result in your commitment to a psychiatric facility. See the following point.
  • Mental Health Treatment: Instead of, or in addition to, other forms of punishment, the court may order you to undergo mental health treatment. This could include therapy, medication, or admission to a psychiatric facility.
  • Reduced Charges: The court may decide to reduce your charges if it is established that your PTSD was a mitigating factor in the crime. For instance, a charge of murder could potentially be reduced to manslaughter.
  • Lighter Sentencing: A successful PTSD defense could lead to a finding of diminished capacity, meaning you are found guilty but are recognized as being less culpable due to your mental state. This often results in a lighter sentence.
  • Probation: In some instances, a successful PTSD defense could lead to probation rather than incarceration. This would likely be coupled with mandatory mental health treatment of some kind.

Military veterans and active-duty military personnel in California are typically eligible for military diversion if they committed a misdemeanor crime and suffered from trauma or a mental health issue at the time of the offense.

If granted diversion, you will receive healthcare treatment instead of spending time in custody. Any criminal charges will be dismissed upon successful completion of your treatment program. Contact us for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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