When Is A Criminal Defendant “Mentally Incompetent” To Stand Trial?
There are some situations where a person is arrested and charged for a crime yet has no idea what is actually happening. Due to a mental illness, they may be incapable of understanding the nature of the charges against them, much less be in a position to assist in their own defense. In this scenario the defendant is said to be “incompetent to proceed,” and any criminal proceedings must be halted until such time as their competency is restored.
Judge Failed to Properly Consider Expert Report Before Ordering Defendant to Stand Trial
Florida law states that a defendant is incompetent to proceed when they “[do] does not have sufficient present ability to consult with her or his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding or if the defendant has no rational, as well as factual, understanding of the proceedings against her or him.”
Before making a finding of incompetency to proceed, the trial judge must appoint at least two mental health experts to examine the defendant. When an expert finds there is incompetence, they will identify the mental illness causing the incompetence, as well as recommend an appropriate treatment that might render the defendant competent to stand trial in the future.
In some cases, the prosecution will stipulate to the expert’s finding of mental incompetence. Absent such a stipulation, however, the judge will normally hold a hearing, at which the court will hear the experts reports and other evidence. Although the judge has the final say, the court must consider the expert’s evaluation in rendering their decision.
For example, the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal recently chided a trial judge who failed to consider an expert report on the defendant’s mental competency prior to proceeding to trial. The defendant in this case, McNeill v. State, was charged with sexual battery. After arrest and prior to trial, the defendant’s attorney filed notice with the court that the defendant was likely not competent to proceed.
The court appointed an expert, who said the defendant was competent to stand trial. The judge took this conclusion at face value and, without actually reviewing the expert’s report, issued a one-line order stating, “Defendant found competent to stand trial.”
The Fifth District said this was insufficient. The judge was required to make a “conclusive and independent finding” regarding competency to stand trial. The judge was not supposed to simply rubber-stamp the expert’s conclusion without even bothering to read their report. As such, the appellate court instructed the judge to make a retroactive determination, if possible, as to whether the defendant was competent prior to both his trial and sentencing dates. If he was not, then the defendant is entitled to a new trial.
Speak with a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
If you, or someone in your family, is accused of a crime, it is essential that the legal system protects their constitutional rights. This includes the right to a proper hearing if there is any question as to competency to stand trial. If you need legal advice and representation from an experienced Tampa criminal defense attorney, contact the Faulkner Law Group, PLLC, today.