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Mental Incompetency

A person who is diagnosed as being mentally ill, senile, or suffering from some other debility that prevents them from managing his own affairs may be declared mentally incompetent by a court of law. When a person is judged to be incompetent, a guardian is appointed to handle the person's property and personal affairs.

The legal procedure for declaring a person incompetent consists of three steps: (1) a motion for a competency hearing, (2) a psychiatric or psychological evaluation, and (3) a competency hearing. Probate courts usually handle competency proceedings, which guarantee the allegedly incompetent person DUE PROCESS OF LAW.

In CRIMINAL LAW a defendant's mental competency may be questioned out of concern for the defendant's welfare or for strategic legal reasons. The defense may request a competency hearing so that it can gather information to use in PLEA BARGAINING, to mitigate a sentence, or to prepare for a potential INSANITY DEFENSE. The prosecution may raise the issue as a preventive measure or to detain the defendant so that a weak case can be built into a stronger one.

A motion for a competency hearing must be made before sentencing takes place. In federal court a motion for a hearing will be granted "if there is a reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may be suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent" (18 U.S.C.A. § 4241 (a)). A psychiatric or psychological evaluation is then conducted, and a hearing is held on the matter. If the court finds that the defendant is incompetent, the defendant will be hospitalized for a reasonable period of time, usually no more than four months. The goal is to determine whether the defendant's competence can be restored.

This type of mental commitment is authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court only for defendants who "probably soon will be able to stand trial" (Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 92 S. Ct. 1845, 32 L. Ed. 2d 435 [1972]). The possibility that a defendant committed a serious crime does not warrant an extended commitment period, because that would violate the defendant's due process rights.

At the end of a four-month commitment, if it appears that the defendant's competence can be restored but more time is needed to do so, the defendant may be hospitalized for an additional 30 days to 18 months. The length of stay varies by state. If a hospital director certifies that the defendant's competence has been restored, the court holds another hearing. If the court agrees the defendant is competent, they are released and a criminal trial date is set. Such a competency ruling cannot be used as evidence against the defendant if they later pleads insanity as a defense in the criminal trial. (An insanity defense refers to the defendant's inability to know or appreciate right from wrong at the time of the alleged crime.)

The Jackson ruling also specified that "treatment must stop if there is no substantial probability that the defendant will regain trial competence in the near future." If that decision is reached, the defendant can continue to be detained only if they are declared permanently incompetent in a civil commitment proceeding.

The development of powerful drugs has given the government the opportunity to medicate mentally incompetent defendants to the point whre they are competent to stand trial. By 2003, the federal government was medicating hundreds of defendants each year but a small number objected to medication. The Supreme Court, in Sell v. United States 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct., 2174, 156 L. Ed. 2d 197 (2003), issued a major setback to prosecutors, when it placed strict guidelines on medicating defendants accused of less serious, nonviolent crimes.

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