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Mental Competency

Penal Code 1368 PC - Competency to Stand Trial in California

All citizens are guaranteed the right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment when they are of a crime. Of course, they must understand the nature of the allegations against them, but what happens when someone is not mentally competent?  

In that case, giving them a fair trial might be impossible. California Penal Code 1368 PC outlines a process where a judge can suspend criminal proceedings if a defendant's mental competency is questioned.

Penal Code 1368 PC - Competency to Stand Trial in California

PC 1368 says: “If during the pendency of an action and prior to 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, they 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. At the request of the defendant or their counsel or upon its own motion, the court shall recess the proceedings for as long as may be reasonably necessary to permit counsel to confer with the defendant and to form an opinion as to the mental competence of the defendant at that point in time.”

Simply put, a defendant can't be tried or convicted of a crime if they don't understand what is happening or can't patriciate in their defense. Therefore, under the law, anyone accused of a crime must understand the nature of the proceedings and be able to help their lawyer defend them.

Suppose a defendant suffers from a mental illness or other condition. In that case, the court can take steps to ensure they are competent to be tried.

Penal Code 1368 mental competency to stand trial differs from an insanity defense. An incompetent ruling can temporarily delay a criminal proceeding, but insanity is a complete defense.

A special hearing before a judge determines competence to stand trial but could be decided by a jury if requested. Typically, a court-appointed psychiatrist will examine defendants with their lawyer present. Let's review this state law further below.

Review of Penal Code 1368 PC

During criminal proceedings, if the judge believes the defendant might be mentally incompetent to stand trial, they must suspend proceedings until they are competent. Below is a review of this process:

  • If a judge doubts the defendant's mental competency, they must make a statement on the official court record;
  • The judge will ask the defendant's lawyer their opinion;
  • If the attorney provides valid evidence of mental incompetency, the judge will suspend proceedings and order a mental health evaluation;
  • The evaluation occurs over 72 hours at a state mental hospital;
  • Once the evaluation is complete, the court has a hearing to determine mental competency to stand trial;
  • Defense has the burden of proof to show the defendant is not competent;
  • If the court rules that the defendant is not mentally competent based on a preponderance of the evidence, they will suspend criminal proceedings until they become competent.
  • If the court rules that the defendant is mentally competent, the criminal proceedings and trial will resume.

What are the Criteria for Determining Mental Competency?

Defendants charged with a crime are considered mentally competent to stand trial if all of the following information is true:

  • They can understand the purpose of the criminal proceedings against them;
  • They can reasonably assist their lawyer in their defense; and
  • They comprehend their status and place within the criminal proceedings.

During court proceedings, a defendant's mental competency can become an issue at any point, but it typically arises in the situations below:  

  • When defendants first appear in court and enter a plea, a judge could question their mental competency based on any evidence they don't understand the nature of the charges against them;
  • If they plead not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the court will order a mental health evaluation to determine whether they were insane when the crime was committed.

Suppose the court rules that the defendant was insane during the crime. In that case, they will be found incompetent to stand trial, and the proceedings will be suspended.

While a defendant may be found incompetent to stand trial because they can't understand the nature of the charges against them, it does not mean they were legally insane.

A finding of legal insanity means a 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?

The case will be transferred to the Mental Health Courthouse in Los Angeles, holding a competency hearing. A psychiatrist is typically appointed to evaluate the defendant to determine if they are competent to stand trial.

Notably, competency hearings are civil rather than criminal proceedings, meaning the rules and procedures differ. The hearing occurs before a judge or a jury, but deciding competency by a jury has to be requested and granted.

The court must assign at least one psychiatrist to determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial. In addition, there must be a preponderance of evidence showing them incompetent.

Suppose a defendant is found to be competent at the hearing.  In that case, the criminal case will be sent back to the original judge and proceed through the normal court process.

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

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

Defendant Declared Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial

They will be committed to a state mental hospital or another state-approved facility for mandatory psychiatric treatment, which could last up to 4 months or longer if their mental condition does not improve.

Suppose a defendant patient improves to being declared mentally competent again. In that case, the criminal proceedings will resume.

Notably, many defendants are determined competent to stand trial but still suffer from significant mental health problems that did impact their behavior when the crime was committed.

If you have a family member who suffers from a mental illness or other disability and is charged with a crime, contact us by phone or contact form to review the details and legal options. Cron, Israels & Stark is located in Los Angeles, California.

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