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How is Competency to Stand Trial Determined?

Posted in Criminal Defense on March 18, 2020

When someone is arrested for allegedly committing a crime, there is a chance they will be asked to stand trial to determine their innocence or guilt. The US court system is built on a system of fairness for everyone involved. In order for a person alleged to have committed a crime to be treated fairly, they must be competent to stand trial. Courts have required that defendants be competent in order to preserve due process. The Sixth Amendment to the US constitution guarantees a fair trial to everyone charged with a crime.

How is competency to stand trial determined?

Defendants have a right to understand the proceedings against them. They should be able to assist in their own defense, which they cannot do if they are legally incompetent. When there is a question as to the competency of the defendant, then the defendant has a right to a hearing to determine their fitness to stand trial.

Every trial court has the authority to order a psychological examination of the defendant. Judges will use the results of a competency evaluation, as well as other factors, to determine whether or not the defendant can stand trial. Among the factors that will be considered could include whether or not the defendant can:

  • Adequately communicate with their defense attorney.
  • Make decisions pertaining to their case.
  • Understand and process information, including the elements of their charges and the possible penalties.

Competency is a relatively low threshold. A defendant’s lack of education, difficulty with language, communication challenges, and unintelligence are generally insufficient to support a finding of incompetency.

A person may be incompetent to stand trial if they suffer from a developmental disability or chronic mental illness, or if they have a traumatic or medical condition that has caused temporary incompetency.

What does CA Law Say?

Competency to stand trial in California is found in Penal Code 1368 PC. Under state law, the defendant cannot be tried or convicted of a crime if:

  • They are unable to understand what is going on in court, or
  • They cannot rationally participate in their own defense.

Distinct from the “insanity” defense

We need to point out that incompetency is not a defense. This is legally not related to a defendant’s mental state at the time the alleged crime occurred. Competency relates only to the defendant’s mental state during the criminal proceedings.

Claiming “insanity” at the time the crime was committed is a complete defense. Insanity is used to describe the defendant’s mental state at the time the alleged crime occurred in an attempt to show that the defendant did not understand what they were doing.

A defendant who is determined to be criminally insane cannot be convicted of the crime, while a defendant determined to be incompetent cannot be tried or convicted while the incompetency lasts, which may or may not be permanent.

Contact Graham Donath | Free Consultations Available

If someone you care about has been arrested and charged with a crime, but you are not sure about their competency to stand trial, contact an attorney immediately. At the Law Offices of Graham Donath, APC, we are ready to help. We firmly believe that everybody has the right to a fair trial. Let our defense attorneys get to work examining this case and ensuring you receive a competency hearing. You can contact us for a free consultation on your case by clicking here or by calling as soon as possible.