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What is the Difference Between Competency and Sanity In Law?

Posted in Criminal Defense,General FAQ'S,Statistics on February 1, 2022

Watch any legal drama on TV and you are bound to hear the terms “competency” and “sanity” bounced around. Perhaps you may hear “not guilty by reason of insanity” after a dramatic courtroom showdown between your favorite actors, or the plot may feature a defendant who is “not competent to stand trial.” So, what is the difference between the two—competency and sanity? Can these terms be used interchangeably?

Very Different Meanings

As it turns out, competency and sanity, while related concepts, are not the same thing at all. And in the legal realm, both play roles that are significantly distinct. Competency, from a legal standpoint, is what determines if the accused is competent to:

  • Appear at trial
  • Understand the charges against them. 
  • Understand the court proceedings. 

Per SCOTUS, a person is competent if they meet two criteria. First, the person in question must be able to use a reasonable degree of rational understanding when consulting with their attorney. Second, the person must have a rational and factual understanding of the court proceedings and charges against them. 

The McNaghten Rule

How the courts define insanity differs from state to state, but in California, the definition of legal insanity is spelled out in Penal Code section 1026. It states that:

Legal insanity requires that the person, by reason of mental disease or defect was incapable of either: Knowing the nature of his or her act. Understanding the nature of his or her act. Distinguishing between right and wrong at the time of commission of the crime.

In California, the accused’s mental state is determined by the McNaughten Rule, a test to determine if the person in question was sane or insane at the time the offense was committed. Even if the insanity lasted for just a short period of time, then they qualify for the insanity defense. Insanity can be permanent or temporary, lasting just a few hours or less.

Competent But Insane?

So, given what we know about competency and sanity, you can see that a defendant can be both not guilty by reason of insanity and also competent to stand trial. If the accused is not able to stand trial because they are not competent to do so, then they can obviously not be adjudged guilty or not guilty, as no trial takes place to begin with. In the same vein, an accused person can be declared legally insane but also legally competent. Still, the person must be legally competent to be declared legally insane. 

Across the country, roughly 1% of all defendants in criminal court plead not guilty by reason of insanity. And unlike those TV shows where every other episode has an alleged mentally ill character being sentenced to life in a mental hospital instead of prison, in real life, very few defendants actually receive a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. 

Consulting With Our Riverside Criminal Defense Attorney 

If the distinction between sanity and competence and the repercussions of each sound complicated, that is because it is. Schedule an appointment to discuss possible criminal defense representation by award-winning defense attorney Graham Donath by dialing (951) 667-5293 or clicking here