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People v. Tortorici, 1999 N.Y. Int. 0015 (Feb. 18, 1999).

CRIMINAL LAW - COMPETENCY - CRIMINAL PROCEDURE LAW 730

Trial court did not abuse its discretion by not requiring a competency hearing for man convicted of holding students hostage since there was sufficient evidence before the court to show defendant was competent.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

Ralph Tortorici, armed with a knife and a gun, held a SUNY-Albany classroom hostage for two hours on December 14, 1994. He made numerous threats during the course of the standoff, and when finally overpowered by some of the hostages, he wounded several of them.

After his arraignment, the City Court ordered an examination to determine whether Defendant was competent to stand trial. The court determined that he was incapacitated and issued a temporary order of observation. Although he was diagnosed with various disorders, after two months of counseling without medication, a psychiatrist reported that Defendant was rational and logical in speech and thought. Consequently, Defendant was certified fit to stand trial and return to court.

During the several months between indictment and the start of jury selection, the Trial Judge observed Defendant's understanding of the trial proceedings and his interactions with his lawyer. The court granted Defendant's motion to waive his right to be present throughout the course of the whole trial. In order to rebut the defense's contention that Defendant was not responsible for his action sby reason of mental disease or defect, Defendant was examined by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist prepared a report indicating that he was asked to assess the Defendant's state of mind at the time of the incident and that in his opinion Defendant was "not able to proceed to trial." The court ruled, based on its own observations, and the contentions of the prosecution and defense counsel, that Defendant was fit for trial.

The jury convicted Defendant of first degree assault, second degree kidnapping, first degree reckless endangerment, and several gun offenses. Defendants appealed, claiming that the County Court erred in not sua sponte ordering a competency hearing fllowing the submission of the psychiatrist's report. A divided Appellate Division affirmed, holding that there was no abuse of discretion.

ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Whether the trial court abused its discretion as a matter of law by failing, on its own, to order a competency hearing under Criminal Procedure Law 730.

Disposition

No. Since there was sufficient evidence before the court regarding defendant's competence, the court did not abuse its discretion by failing to order a competency hearing.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

Other Sources Cited by the Court

Cases Relied on by the Dissent

Other Sources Cited by the Dissent

COMMENTARY

State of the Law Before Tortorici

A criminal defendant is presumed to be competent. See People v. Gelikkaya, 84 N.Y.2d 456,459 (N.Y. 1994). However, whenever a trial court has a "reasonable ground for believing that a defendant is in such a state of ... insanity that he is incapable of understanding the ... proceedings or of making his defense, it is the duty of the court to direct him to be examined in these respects." People v. Smyth, 3 N.Y.2d 184,187 (N.Y. 1957). Additionally, if there is sufficient doubt as to the defendant's competence, a hearing must also be held. See Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975). The trial court has discretion to order an examination if it feels that the defendant may be incapacitated. See N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 730.30(1). The trial judge may conduct an incapacity hearing on its own motion or the motion of either party, even if the institution in which the defendant was confined has found him no longer incapacitated. See N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 730.60(2). Even after a defendant is certified as competent, counsel may request a psychiatric examination of the defendant.

In Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975), the United States Supreme Court held a state statute providing four essential protections is constitutionally adequate to protect a defendant's due process right not to be tried while legally incompetent. First, the statute must provide that a judge or magistrate shall, upon his own motion or upon a motion filed by the state or the accused, order a psychiatric examination whenever he has reasonable cause to believe that the accused has a mental disease excluding fitness to proceed. Second, it must prescribe the contents of a report of a psychiatric examination. Third, it must require the court to hold a hearing if the opinion as to the fitness to proceed is contested. Finally, the statute must authorize the trial court to conduct a hearing on its own motion.

Effect of Tortorici on Current Law

The Court of Appeals reaffirmed the independent statutory ability of the trial court, granted by N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law § 730, to use its discretion to determine the necessity of a competency hearing. The trial court has no affirmative duty to order an additional competency hearing where there is insufficient doubt as to the defendant's competence or where neither party has made a motion for such a hearing. In the absence of such motion, and even in the light of a contrary professional medical view, it is not abuse of discretion for a trial court to make a competency determination based on its own opinion and observation.

Dissent

The dissent focused on the overall negative evaluation by Dr. Lawrence Siegel, the psychiatrist who examined Defendant for purposes of deciding whether he, at the time of the crime, lacked responsibility due to mental disease or defect. The dissent asserted that the People did not meet their burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that Defendant was competent to stand trial. See People v. Christopher, 65 N.Y.2d 417, 424-425 (N.Y. 1985). The dissent also focused on the documented evidence of Defendant's numerous psychological problems.

Unanswered Questions

When does sufficient doubt arise as to defendant's competence to override the trial court's discretion and compel a competency hearing?

In light of the Court of Appeals's reliance upon its decision in Morgan, would it have been an abuse of discretion to deny a second psychiatric evaluation regarding Defendant's competency if one had been requested?

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Many jurisdictions agree with New York's position that, so long as the trial court has a reasonable belief that a defendant is competent and able to understand the proceedings against him or assist in his defense, a court is not compelled to order a competency hearing. See Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975); Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960). For example, in California, section 1368 of the Penal Code, provides that a defendant will only be entitled to a competency hearing if the trial judge has a doubt as to the defendant's mental incompetence; defendant is not entitled to a competency hearing merely upon the defense counsel's opinion that the defendant is mentally incompetent. See People v. Hays, 126 Cal. Rptr. 770 (Cal. Ct. App. 1976) (holding that there must be substantial evidence of doubt as to defendant's mental competence before he is entitled to a section 1368 hearing); People v. Laudermilk, 431 P.2d 228 (Cal. 1967) (holding that there must be substantial evidence of doubt as to a defendant's mental competency and his ability to assist in his own defense to overturn trial court's denial of a competency hearing).

Illinois also uses the abuse of discretion standard to evaluate a trial court's decision regarding whether to grant a competency hearing. See People v. Jenkins, 384 N.E.2d 1348 (Ill. App. Ct. 1978). Under Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 38, par. 1005-2-1(a), a defendant is unfit to stand trial if he is unable to: (1) understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against him; or (2) assist in his defense. the trial court must have a bona fide doubt with respect to defendant's fitness to order a competency hearing. See People v. Hall, 541 N.E.2d 1369, 1374 (Ill. App. Ct. 1989). In Hall, the trial court's refusal to order a competency hearing was upheld by the Appellate Court. The Appellate Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by relying on its own observation of defendant instead of giving more weight to the defendant's prior psychiatric history and the probation officer's observations. See id. at 1375.

Texas requires a trial judge, who finds a reasonable ground to doubt the competency of the accused to stand trial, to order a competency hearing out of the presence of the jury. See Quintanilla v. Texas, 508 S.W.2d 647 (Tex. Crim. App. 1974). Florida stresses that the correct test is whether there is a reasonable ground to believe the defendant may be incompetent, not whether he is incompetent. See Walker v. State, 384 So.2d 730, 733 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1980). Upon reasonable grounds for believing the defendant may be incompetent, the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure require the court to conduct a competency hearing. See Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.210(a)(2) (1979).

Prepared By:

  • Sarah E. Buffett, '99
  • Andrew Cohen, '99
  • Joshua Eisenberg, '00
  • Meredith Ford, '99
  • Sheila Kiernan, '00
  • Ashley Lattal, '00