Before a defendant can face prosecution in a criminal case, they must be in their “right” mind in order to understand the charges being brought against them. Known as “competence”, when a defendant’s mental state restricts them from comprehending the charges in their case, the court will deem them as incompetent to stand trial.
When this happens, the law dictates that the defendant can’t be convicted because everyone is entitled to a fair trial under the law, and if the defendant does not have the mental capacity to understand why they are being prosecuted, the trial is unfair by its nature.
In general, the chance that the court will determine someone incompetent to stand trial is rare. Further, in order to determine if someone is truly incompetent, the court can order the defendant to undergo psychological testing by a professional.
What Happens if You Are Found Incompetent?
Along with the right for an individual to defend themselves, and their right to legal representation, every criminal defendant has a legal right to fully understand why they have been charged and what kind of case has been brought against them.
This means that if the defendant is incapable of fully understanding the charges brought against them, they will not stand trial. Further, even if the prosecutor has hard evidence, or the individual confessed to the crime, the court can’t proceed with the case.
However, if someone is deemed incompetent to stand trial, this does not mean they get to leave jail and go back to their normal life. If the court ruled that an individual is incompetent, they will remain in custody and the case will be put on hold.
In some situations, it’s a possibility that the person will never become competent to stand trial. Yet, if they are deemed competent in the future, they can stand trial for those charges once their competence has been regained.
Generally, a court becomes aware of the defendant’s competence early on in the case. If this happens and they deem the individual incompetent, the court has the power to require them to submit to a psychological evaluation.
In a psychological evaluation, the questions are designed to help a mental health professional assess whether or not the person comprehends the criminal charges and potential consequences. Further, they also want to determine if the defendant understand who their lawyer is and what role the lawyer has in the case. These evaluations can take many hours to complete.
Along with the psychological evaluation, the court may consider other factors, including whether the defendant is able to properly communicate with their defense lawyer, if they are able to grasp the severity of the case, how well they are taking in the information surrounding the case, and if they appear to be capable of making decisions about their case.
Is Competency a Defense?
People commonly think that competency can be used as a defense, however, this is untrue. Competency describes a person’s mental state during their case, not when they were committing a crime.
It is also important not to confuse competency with an insanity defense. An insanity defense is when a defendant claims they didn’t possess a normal state of mind when they carried out the crime. This is different from the defendant’s mental state at the time of trial. Yet, if an insanity defense is used, it can be possible that they are still mentally unfit at the time of the trial.
With that said, it is plausible that someone who does have a mental illness will be competent to stand trial. For instance, a person’s mental illness may be manageable with medication, and the court could ask a mental health professional to assess whether the medication would restore the defendant’s competence. If this happens, the court has the right to order the defendant to comply with the medical treatment, ensuring they can stand trial.
Are You Facing Criminal Charges?
If you or a loved one has been charged with a state or federal crime, contact our experienced Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers today. Premier Federal Criminal Defenders have decades of combined experience in California criminal defense and have a proven track record of successful cases. Call today for a free consultation 1-800-455-6200.