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When Does Mental Disability Excuse a Criminal Act? Understanding Competency to Stand Trial

Written by Moses & Rooth on March 10, 2015
Florida Probation

The issue of pleading guilty to a crime by reason of insanity is a common “crime movie” theme. As a result, many are familiar with the basic requirements. But, a less understood issue is how a defendant’s mental state can affect his or her ability to stand trial.

Due Process Requires Competency

As declared in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the United States Constitution guarantees Due Process to every defendant standing trial. Due Process prevents the denial of life, liberty, or property without the just administration of the law. A person who is deemed incompetent may not have the required competency to be tried in a manner that satisfies the requirements of Due Process.

A person is deemed to be incompetent if he or she either:

  • lacks the capacity to consult with an attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; or
  • lacks a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings he or she is facing.

The U.S. Constitution requires competency because an incompetent person is unable to adequately participate in his or her trial. For example, an incompetent person may be unable to provide necessary assistance to his or her attorney, such as explaining his or her side of events, or identifying possible witnesses. Further, an incompetent person is unable to meaningfully confront his or her accusers at trial, or to rationally testify on the witness stand.

Determining Competency

Incompetency may be the result of a physical handicap, such as an inability to speak. Alternatively, incompetency may be the result of a temporary or permanent mental disability, such as mental illness or amnesia. The question of whether a defendant is incompetent to stand trial may be raised by the prosecutor, the defense, or the trial judge. Once raised, incompetency is generally a question for the judge to determine (and not a question for a jury). The judge will rely on evaluations by trained professionals, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, and the defendant may be committed to a mental health facility while the determination is pending.

It is important to note that the question of competency to stand trial differs from the question of whether the defendant is eligible to assert a defense of insanity. While the question of insanity relates to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged criminal act, the question of competency relates to the defendant’s state at the time of trial. Thus, a defendant may be competent to stand trial and yet plead insanity.

The Effect of Incompetency

If a defendant is found to be incompetent to stand trial, the criminal proceedings will be postponed until the defendant is competent (e.g. as a result of treatment by trained by professionals). In the case of a permanent condition, such as severe mental retardation, a defendant may never be deemed competent and a criminal trial may never be held.

It is critical to secure the aid of a criminal defense attorney who understands the role that mental health plays both in defending against charges and the overall criminal law process. For help in Orlando or nearby communities, please contact a criminal defense attorney at Moses and Rooth today.

Posted Under: Criminal Defense, Criminal Justice, Mental Disease

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