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Competency to Stand Trial

The Competency Standard And Its Application, The Competency Assessment Process, Disposition Following Competency Determination, Psychotropic Medication In The Incompetency Process

If at any time in the criminal proceedings the defendant appears to be suffering from a mental illness, the issue of competence to proceed may be raised. This may occur when the defendant seeks to plead guilty or to stand trial. It may occur when the defendant seeks to waive certain constitutional rights, such as the Fifth Amendment or Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), or the Sixth Amendment right to counsel or to a jury trial. Even after conviction, the issue may be raised at a sentencing hearing, or when the government seeks to administer punishment, including capital punishment. The issue usually is raised by defense counsel by oral or written motion, but also may be raised by the prosecution or by the court itself, even over the objection of the defendant, who may prefer to proceed despite the existence of mental illness.

Several studies conclude that the vast majority of defendants are referred inappropriately for competency evaluation and have suggested that the competency process often is invoked for strategic purposes. The issue may be raised by both sides to obtain delay, by prosecutors to avoid bail or an expected insanity acquittal, or to bring about hospitalization that might not otherwise be available under the state's civil commitment statute, or by defense attorneys to obtain mental health recommendations for use in making an insanity defense, in plea bargaining, or in sentencing.

Under Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975), and Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966), the court must conduct an inquiry into competence whenever a bona fide doubt is raised concerning the issue. Even after the criminal trial has commenced, the court must order a competency evaluation when reasonable grounds emerge to question the defendant's competence. If this does not occur even though a bona fide question of competence exists, any resulting conviction will violate due process.

When is such a bona fide doubt raised? According to Drope v. Missouri, "[e]vidence of a defendant's irrational behavior, his demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on competence to stand trial are all relevant in determining whether further inquiry is required, but . . . even one of these factors standing alone may, in some circumstances, be sufficient." The Court noted that there are "no fixed or immutable signs which invariably indicate the need for further inquiry;" instead, "the question is often a difficult one in which a wide range of manifestations and subtle nuances are implicated" (p. 180). As a result of Drope and the rule of Pate that due process is violated if an incompetent defendant is subjected to trial, courts typically order a formal competency evaluation in virtually every case in which doubt about the issue is raised.

What happens when the court fails to order a competency determination when the evidence raises a bona fide question concerning the issue? When the defendant is subjected to trial in the absence of such a determination, any ensuing conviction would violate due process and must be reversed under Pate v. Robinson. Can a court retrospectively conduct the needed inquiry into competence after the trial has occurred? Although Pate seemed to indicate that an automatic reversal of such a conviction would be required, lower courts have sometimes permitted such a retrospective competency assessment when such a determination is thought to be feasible in the circumstances.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law