Competency for Trial

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Amdt5.4.8.2.1.2.2 Competency for Trial

Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

It is a denial of due process to try or sentence a defendant who is “insane” or incompetent to stand trial.1 When it becomes evident during the trial that a defendant is or has become “insane” or incompetent to stand trial, the court on its own initiative must conduct a hearing on the issue.2 Although there is no constitutional requirement that the state assume the burden of proving a defendant competent, the state must provide the defendant with a chance to prove that he is incompetent to stand trial. Thus, a statutory presumption that a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial or a requirement that the defendant bear the burden of proving incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence does not violate due process.3

When a state determines that a person charged with a criminal offense is incompetent to stand trial, he cannot be committed indefinitely for that reason. The court’s power is to commit him to a period no longer than is necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that he will attain his capacity in the foreseeable future. If it is determined that he will not, then the state must either release the defendant or institute the customary civil commitment proceeding that would be required to commit any other citizen.4

Where a defendant is found competent to stand trial, a state appears to have significant discretion in how it takes account of mental illness or defect at the time of the offense in determining criminal responsibility.5 . The Court has identified several tests that are used by states in varying combinations to address the issue: the M'Naghten test (cognitive incapacity or moral incapacity),6 volitional incapacity,7 and the irresistible-impulse test.8 “[I]t is clear that no particular formulation has evolved into a baseline for due process, and that the insanity rule, like the conceptualization of criminal offenses, is substantially open to state choice.” 9 For example, in Kahler v. Kansas, the Court held that the Due Process Clause does not require a state to adopt M'Naghten's moral-incapacity test as a complete insanity defense resulting in an acquittal.10 The Court stated that “[d]efining the precise relationship between criminal culpability and mental illness,” because it involves “hard choices” among competing values and evolving understandings of mental health, “is a project for state governance, not constitutional law.” 11

Commitment to a mental hospital of a criminal defendant acquitted by reason of insanity does not offend due process, and the period of confinement may extend beyond the period for which the person could have been sentenced if convicted.12 The purpose of the confinement is not punishment, but treatment, and the Court explained that the length of a possible criminal sentence “therefore is irrelevant to the purposes of . . . commitment.” 13 Thus, the insanity-defense acquittee may be confined for treatment “until such time as he has regained his sanity or is no longer a danger to himself or society.” 14 It follows, however, that a state may not indefinitely confine an insanity-defense acquittee who is no longer mentally ill but who has an untreatable personality disorder that may lead to criminal conduct.15

In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment also prohibits the state from executing certain persons with an intellectual disability, and added, “[W]e leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences.” 16 (per curiam). States, the Court added, are entitled to “adopt[ ] their own measures for adjudicating claims” of intellectual disability, though “those measures might, in their application, be subject to constitutional challenge.” Id.

Issues of substantive due process may arise if the government seeks to compel the medication of a person found to be incompetent to stand trial. In Washington v. Harper,17 the Court had found that an individual has a significant “liberty interest” in avoiding the unwanted administration of antipsychotic drugs. In Sell v. United States,18 the Court found that this liberty interest could in “rare” instances be outweighed by the government's interest in bringing an incompetent individual to trial. First, however, the government must engage in a fact-specific inquiry as to whether this interest is important in a particular case.19 Second, the court must find that the treatment is likely to render the defendant competent to stand trial without resulting in side effects that will interfere with the defendant's ability to assist counsel. Third, the court must find that less intrusive treatments are unlikely to achieve substantially the same results. Finally, the court must conclude that administration of the drugs is in the patient's best medical interests.

Footnotes
1
Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378 (1966) (citing Bishop v. United States, 350 U.S. 961 (1956)). The standard for competency to stand trial is whether the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960) (per curiam), cited with approval in Indiana v. Edwards, 128 S. Ct. 2379, 2383 (2008). The fact that a defendant is mentally competent to stand trial does not preclude a court from finding him not mentally competent to represent himself at trial. Indiana v. Edwards, supra. back
2
Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378 (1966); see also Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975) (noting the relevant circumstances that may require a trial court to inquire into the mental competency of the defendant). In Ake v. Oklahoma, the Court established that, when an indigent defendant's mental condition is both relevant to the punishment and seriously in question, the state must provide the defendant with access to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” 470 U.S. 68, 83 (1985). While the Court has not decided whether Ake requires that the state provide a qualified mental health expert who is available exclusively to the defense team, see McWilliams v. Dunn, 137 S. Ct. 1790, 1799 (2017), a state nevertheless deprives an indigent defendant of due process when it provides a competent psychiatrist only to examine the defendant without also requiring that an expert provide the defense with help in evaluating, preparing, and presenting its case. Id. at 1800. back
3
Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437 (1992). It is a violation of due process, however, for a state to require that a defendant must prove competence to stand trial by clear and convincing evidence. Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996). back
4
Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715 (1972). back
5
Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735 (2006). back
6
M'Naghten's Case, 8 Eng. Rep. 718 (1843), states that “[T]o establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.” 8 Eng. Rep., at 722. back
7
See Queen v. Oxford, 173 Eng. Rep. 941, 950 (1840) ( “If some controlling disease was, in truth, the acting power within [the defendant] which he could not resist, then he will not be responsible” ). back
8
See State v. Jones, 50 N.H. 369 (1871) ( “If the defendant had a mental disease which irresistibly impelled him to kill his wife—if the killing was the product of mental disease in him—he is not guilty; he is innocent—as innocent as if the act had been produced by involuntary intoxication, or by another person using his hand against his utmost resistance” ). back
9
Clark, 548 U.S. at 752. In Clark, the Court considered an Arizona statute, based on the M'Naghten case, that was amended to eliminate the defense of cognitive incapacity. The Court noted that, despite the amendment, proof of cognitive incapacity could still be introduced as it would be relevant (and sufficient) to prove the remaining moral incapacity test. Id. at 753. back
10
140 S. Ct. 1021, 1027, 1037 (2020). back
11
Id. at 1037. back
12
Jones v. United States, 463 U.S. 354 (1983). The fact that the affirmative defense of insanity need only be established by a preponderance of the evidence, while civil commitment requires the higher standard of clear and convincing evidence, does not render the former invalid; proof beyond a reasonable doubt of commission of a criminal act establishes dangerousness justifying confinement and eliminates the risk of confinement for mere idiosyncratic behavior. back
13
463 U.S. at 368. back
14
463 U.S. at 370. back
15
Foucha v. Louisiana, 504 U.S. 71 (1992). back
16
536 U.S. at 317 (citation omitted), quoting Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 416–17 (1986). The Court quoted this language again in Schriro v. Smith, determining that the Ninth Circuit exceeded its authority in holding that Arizona courts were required to conduct a jury trial to resolve a defendant's claim that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. 546 U.S. 6, 7 (2005) (per curiam). States, the Court added, are entitled to “adopt[ ] their own measures for adjudicating claims” of intellectual disability, though “those measures might, in their application, be subject to constitutional challenge.” Id. back
17
494 U.S. 210 (1990) (prison inmate could be drugged against his will if he presented a risk of serious harm to himself or others). back
18
539 U.S. 166 (2003). back
19
For instance, if the defendant is likely to remain civilly committed absent medication, this would diminish the government's interest in prosecution. 539 U.S. at 180. back

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