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Mental Competency for Trial

Mental Competency for Trial in California - Penal Code 1368 PC

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to a fair trial when accused of a crime and to know and understand the nature of the accusations made against them.

But suppose a defendant is not mentally competent enough to understand the nature of the alleged offense and the proceedings against them. In that case, giving them a fair trial is impossible.

Mental Competency for Trial in California - Penal Code 1368 PC
PC 1368 allows a judge to suspend proceedings if a defendant's mental competency is questioned.

For that reason, California Penal Code 1368 PC provides a legal process by which judges can suspend criminal proceedings against a defendant if their mental competency is questioned.

PC 1368 says: “If during the pendency of criminal action and before judgment, a doubt arises in the judge's mind about the mental competence of defendant, they will state that doubt on the record and ask their lawyer for their opinion if their defendant is mentally competent. At the request of a lawyer with a motion, the court can recess proceedings until they form an opinion about the defendant's mental competence at that point in time.”

In other words, a defendant can't be tried or convicted of a crime if they don't understand what is happening in court, or they can't reasonably patriciate in their defense.

In other words, any person accused of a California crime must understand the nature of the proceedings and be able to assist their criminal lawyer in defending the case.

A defendant might not meet these requirements due to a mental illness or other condition. In this occurs, the court could take action to ensure the defendant is competent to be tried.

PC 1368 incompetency to stand trial is different from an insanity defense. For example, incompetence can only temporarily delay a criminal proceeding, while insanity is considered a complete defense to the crime.

Some defendants could be permanently incompetent, while others are only temporarily incompetent and could be tried once they are again competent. Competency to stand trial is determined by a special hearing before a judge but could be decided by a jury if requested.

A court-appointed psychiatrist will typically examine defendants, and the defense attorney will be allowed to present evidence. Penal Code 1382 is the statute that ensures a defendant's speedy trial rights. Our California criminal defense attorneys will look at this law further below.

Overview of PC 1368

If at any point during criminal proceedings, the judge presiding over the case believes the defendant might be mentally incompetent to stand trial, PC 1368 says the judge must suspend proceedings until it is determined that the defendant is competent. The process effectively goes as follows:

  • Once the judge doubts the defendant's competency, they must state on the official court record that he doubts the defendant's mental competency.
  • The judge will then ask the defendant's counsel to offer their opinion on the defendant's competency.
  • If the defense attorney provides substantial evidence of mental incompetency, the judge will suspend proceedings and order a mental health evaluation of the defendant. This evaluation typically takes place over 72 hours at a state mental hospital.
  • Once that evaluation is complete, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether or not the defendant is mentally competent to stand trial. The burden of proof is on the defense counsel to show that the defendant is not competent.
  • If the court finds that the defendant is not mentally competent based on a preponderance of the evidence, it will order that criminal proceedings be suspended until the defendant becomes competent.
  • If the court finds the defendant is mentally competent, the criminal proceedings and trial will resume.

What is the Criteria for Determining Mental Competency?

A defendant is considered mentally competent to stand trial if all of the following are true:

  • The defendant can understand the nature and purpose of the criminal proceedings against them;
  • The defendant can reasonably assist their attorney in presenting their defense; and
  • The defendant can comprehend their status and place within the criminal proceedings.

A defendant's mental competency can be an issue during proceedings, but it most often comes up in one of two situations discussed below.

1) When the defendant first appears in court and enters a plea, the judge may question the defendant's mental competency if there are indications that the defendant does not understand the nature of the charges against them or is unable to assist in their defense.

2) If the defendant pleads not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the court will order a mental health evaluation to determine whether the defendant was insane when the crime was committed. If the evaluation finds that the defendant was not insane, the court will find them competent to stand trial.

However, if the evaluation finds that the defendant was insane at the time of the crime, they will be found incompetent to stand trial, and proceedings will be suspended.

Competency vs. Insanity

It's essential to understand the difference between mental competency and legal insanity, as they are two very different things.

A defendant may be found incompetent to stand trial because they cannot understand the nature of the charges against them or assist in their defense, but that does not mean they were legally insane at the time the crime was committed.

Likewise, a defendant may be found legally insane at the time of the crime, but that does not mean they are currently incompetent to stand trial. The bottom line is that a finding of mental incompetency implies that the defendant is not mentally capable of participating in their defense at the current time.

On the other hand, a finding of legal insanity indicates that the defendant was not in control of their actions when the crime was committed and therefore cannot be held criminally responsible.

What is a Competency Hearing?

In Los Angeles County, the case will be transferred to the Mental Health Courthouse, responsible for conducting the competency hearing.

What is a Mental Competency Hearing?
In a competency hearing, the case will be sent over to a mental health court for evaluation.

Usually, a psychiatrist is appointed to evaluate the defendant to decide whether they are competent to stand trial.

Competency hearings are civil action rather than criminal proceedings, meaning the rules and procedures are different. The hearing is conducted before a judge or a jury, but determining competency by a jury must be requested and granted.

The court must assign at least one psychiatrist or psychologist who has to examine the defendant to decide whether they are competent to stand trial. 

There must be a preponderance of evidence showing that the defendant is not competent to stand trial.

If they are found to be competent at the hearing, then the case will be returned to the original judge, and it will proceed through the normal criminal court process.

What Happens if a Defendant is Declared Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial?

If the presiding judge ultimately determines that the defendant is mentally incompetent to stand trial, all criminal proceedings against them will be suspended until they are found to be competent.

Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial
Contact our criminal defense attorneys if you have an issue dealing with mental competency.

The defendant will be committed to a state mental hospital or another state-approved facility for mandatory psychiatric treatment. This treatment may last up to 4 months, or possibly longer, if the defendant's mental condition does not improve.

If the defendant/patient improves to the point that they can be declared mentally competent again, criminal proceedings will resume.

Many defendants are determined competent to stand trial but still suffer from significant mental health problems that influenced their behavior when the crime was committed.

If you have a mental illness or other disability and are charged with a crime, contact us to review the details and discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. You can contact us for an initial case evaluation via phone or by filling out the contact form.

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