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Does a PTSD Defense Apply to Criminal Charges?

Posted by Sam Israels | May 06, 2024

Defense lawyers have used post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in California criminal cases based on insanity, unconsciousness, self-defense, diminished capacity, and sentencing mitigation. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is described as a psychiatric disorder that could occur in someone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events, or set of circumstances. 

Someone might experience PTSD as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening, and it might affect their mental, physical, social, or spiritual well-being. Some examples include war and combat veterans and those who have experienced serious accidents, terrorist acts,  rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and bullying.

Does a PTSD Defense Apply to Criminal Charges?
You may be able to use PTSD as a mental health condition to challenge your criminal charges.

People with PTSD often have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings that are related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event occurred. 

They might relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares, or they might feel sadness, fear, or anger. Often, they feel detached from society and isolate themselves from other people.

They often avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event and could even have strong adverse reactions to something as ordinary as loud noises.

However, under case law, a PTSD defense has received mixed opinions in our criminal justice system. Some courts have recognized testimony about PTSD as scientifically reliable. Still, others have not always found that presenting PTSD testimony is relevant or admissible.

Often, the issue hinges on whether expert testimony can show how PTSD met the standard for the given defense. Suppose it did not meet the standard for a complete defense to the charges. In that case, PTSD has been presented as a partial defense or mitigating circumstance, but this has not always worked. 

A PTSD diagnosis has been used in criminal courts for numerous non-violent and violent crimes. Other trauma-related syndromes have also been used, such as battered wife syndrome and battered child syndrome, which are considered a particular form of PTSD. Notably, the use of a PTSD defense has often been met with concerns over potential misuse in a criminal courtroom. 

What If You Are Charged With a Crime?

If you are someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is now facing criminal charges in California, you might believe that your mental condition influenced your actions. 

In some circumstances, PTSD can play a role in committing a crime, typically when the PTSD symptoms are so severe that they significantly impair their ability to understand their actions or the consequences. 

Notably, while PTSD could influence behavior, it does not excuse criminal acts but instead provides context to the defendant's mental state when the alleged crime occurred. 

As noted, PTSD is considered a mental illness triggered by experiencing some traumatic event. PTSD is a serious mental health condition often found in military combat veterans. Possible symptoms of PTSD include the following:

  • Nightmares,
  • Intrusive thoughts,
  • High anxiety attacks or
  • Flashbacks. 

One of the most common charges in California is related to domestic violence. Suppose you believe that you committed domestic battery on your spouse because you were too quick to get angry, which was caused by PTSD.

In that case, can you potentially use a PTSD defense to challenge the case? The simple answer is it's possible, but it will always depend on the case details and the severity of your mental condition. PTSD can be used to defend against a criminal charge for the following reasons:

  • Get probation with no jail time or
  • Receive a lighter sentence,
  • Enter California's military diversion program.

What is an Insanity Defense?

The insanity defense is a defense where a defendant can plead in a criminal trial and is often related to PTSD. In an insanity defense, the defendant admits the acts but asserts a lack of culpability based on mental illness.

Insanity Defense

In some cases, which are uncommon, someone's PTSD is so severe that it renders them mentally insane, and PTSD is used to support an insanity defense.

The defense might work if you were permanently insane or temporarily insane when you committed a crime. Under California law, 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, you are burdened to prove insanity by a preponderance of the evidence. This is different from proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as it means it was more likely than not that you were insane at the time of your crime, often established by expert witness testimony. 

If your defense lawyer can prove insanity, which is rare, you would be committed to a mental health treatment facility instead of jail or state prison. 

When Can You Use PTSD Be Used as a Mitigating Factor?

You might be able to use PTSD as part of your legal defense strategy under certain conditions to get criminal charges reduced or a lesser sentence. 

Simply put, you are claiming that you suffer from a mental health condition that directly contributed to your criminal actions, making you less culpable. Some strategies include the following:

  • You may be able to claim that your PTSD condition influenced your decisions and choices. While this will not typically result in a case dismissal, it could be a mitigating circumstance to reduce your penalty.
  • PTSD might be used in defense through a claim of diminished capacity. This means that your mental state, when the crime occurred, was at such a level that you were unaware of your actions, such as reliving a flashback.
  • Sometimes, when someone with PTSD commits a crime because they believe there is an immediate threat to their safety, they might be able to use defenses of duress or necessity, but this would require substantial evidence and possibly even expert testimony.
  • Sometimes, the PTSD defense is that your symptoms were so severe when the crime occurred that they rendered you mentally insane. However, to be successful, your lawyer would have to show that you met the legal criteria for insanity at the time, meaning you could not understand the nature of your actions or distinguish right from wrong.  This will typically require expert testimony and a psychological evaluation. If successful, the insanity defense might keep you from going to jail, but you would be committed to a mental institution instead.

In some cases, you may be able to present evidence of PTSD to get probation.  Suppose you are convicted of a crime in California. In that case, before sentencing, the judge might consider whether you committed the crime due to PTSD or any of the other following reasons:

  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI),
  • Sexual trauma,
  • Substance abuse or
  • Mental illness related to military service (military diversion). 

When Might PTSD Not Be Used?

Notably, there are also situations where PTSD will not typically be considered a valid defense, such as the following:

  • If the PTSD symptoms were not at such a level that they significantly impaired your ability to understand your actions or the consequences.
  • If you were not diagnosed with PTSD by a qualified medical professional.
  • If the crime was premeditated or planned because this defense relies on the argument that your PTSD symptoms influenced your mental state at the time of the crime.

What Are the Potential Outcomes of a PTSD Defense?

Suppose you persuaded a judge or jury that your PTSD played a significant role in the commission of the crime. In that case, it might result in any of the following outcomes:

  • Your charges might be reduced. The court might decide to reduce your charges, such as reducing murder to manslaughter.
  • You might get mental health treatment. The court could decide to order treatment instead of punishment, including therapy, medication, or admission to a psychiatric facility.
  • You might be acquitted. Suppose the court determines that your PTSD was so severe that it significantly impaired your ability to understand your actions. In that case, you could be acquitted but would most likely be committed to a psychiatric facility.
  • You might receive a lesser sentence. If the court decides that PTSD leads to a diminished capacity, you could receive a lighter sentence.
  • You might get probation. Sometimes, a successful PTSD defense leads to probation rather than incarceration but might also include some mandatory mental health treatment.

Also, if granted diversion, you will receive treatment instead of spending time in custody. Upon completing your treatment program, any criminal charges will be dismissed. Contact our law firm for more information. Cron, Israels & Stark is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Sam Israels

Sam J. Israels is a Law Firm partner with the Law Offices of Cron, Israels, & Stark. Mr. Israels received his J.D. degree from the Santa Clara University School of Law. Mr. Israels also previously worked at the Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney. He is admitted to practice law in the State o...

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