What is Competence to Stand Trial

When a person is charged with a criminal offense, at times a claim will be made that the person is not competent to stand trial. As the result of mental illness or disability, a defendant who is not competent to stand trial lacks sufficient understanding of the charges filed against him, is incapable of effectively assisting in his own defense, or both.

In order to stand trial, a defendant must be able to both understand the criminal charges that have been filed against him, and be capable of participating in his defense. When a defendant is not able to do so, it is not possible to proceed with a trial.

Competence vs. Criminal Responsibility

Although the two issues are often raised at the same time, the issue of competence to stand trial is different from that of criminal responsibility or diminished capacity, commonly known as the insanity defense:

  • Competence to Stand Trial: Whether a defendant is able to understand the charges he faces and meaningfully participate in the defense of a criminal case.

  • Criminal Responsibility: Whether the defendant may be held responsible for the crime or, due to a mental illness, disorder or disability, the defendant cannot be held legally responsible for the alleged crime.

It is possible for a defendant to be incompetent to stand trial but be criminally responsible, such that if the defendant's competence is restored a trial may proceed and may result in conviction. Similarly, it is possible for a defendant to be competent to stand trial, while attempting to prove at trial that he was not criminally responsible at the time of the alleged crime.

Evaluation of a Defendant's Competence to Stand Trial

A petition alleging that a defendant is not competent to stand trial is normally filed by the defendant's defense attorney, but at times may be filed by a prosecutor. The lawyer who files the petition will normally describe specific facts and actions of the defendant, and possibly prior medical diagnoses in support of the petition.

If a court finds that the petition raises valid concerns about the defendant's competence, the court will order that the defendant undergo a forensic psychological or psychiatric evaluation.

Review of the Petition by the Court

When a court reviews a petition alleging that a defendant is not competent to stand trial, the court will consider factors that include:

  • The defendant's ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding;

  • The defendant's rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him;

  • The defendant's ability to make or participate in informed decisions relating to his case.

If a defendant has a mental illness that is successfully managed through psychiatric medications, but the defendant is refusing to take those medications, the court can order that the defendant take the medications and that, if the defendant does not cooperate, that the medications be administered against the defendant's wishes.

Evaluation of Competence by a Mental Health Professional

Once the court orders a forensic evaluation, the defendant will be examined by at least one mental health professional. An uncooperative defendant will be compelled to participate in the evaluation.

While sometimes a defendant will be profoundly mentally ill or disabled, and unable to meaningfully participate or cooperate in the evaluation, a defendant is expected to cooperate within the limits of his capacity to do so. It thus may be possible for a mentally ill or disabled defendant to be competent to stand trial, even if it will be more difficult for that defendant to understand proceedings or assist with the defense of the case.

Following the evaluation, the evaluator will prepare a report that will be returned to the court. The report will either find that the defendant is competent to stand trial, such that trial proceedings resume, or find that the defendant is not competent to stand trial. The report may address factors that include:

  • The Basis of Diagnosis: Findings and test results that support any diagnosis of a mental impairment.

  • The Diagnosis: Any specific illness, impairment or disorder that was diagnosed as a result of the evaluation, or a finding that no impairment exists.

  • The Effect of the Impairment: The extent to which any diagnosed impairment affects the defendant's ability to understand the charges that have been filed against him, the nature and purpose of the criminal proceedings, and the defendant's ability to assist with and participate in his defense;

  • Signs of Malingering: Whether there is any evidence that suggests that the defendant is exaggerating or feigning the effects of a mental impairment.

  • Treatment Options: If a defendant is determined to be incompetent, what treatment options are available to restore competence and how long that process is likely to take.

Sometimes a defendant will present expert testimony at a hearing on the petition to challenge the prosecution expert's evaluation, and the court will consider the competing views of the various experts.

If the defendant is determined incompetent to stand trial, the evaluator may recommend a course of treatment or may recommend a referral of the defendant for treatment that is intended to restore him to competence. Treatment may occur in an inpatient mental health facility. Treatment is mandatory and, if a defendant is uncooperative, may be administered against the defendant's wishes.

What Happens After Treatment

When a defendant undergoes treatment intended to restore his competence, if he is restored to competence that fact will be reported to the court and the court will place the defendant's case back on the docket. The case will then proceed toward trial.

If treatment is not successful and, as is normally the case, the defendant is in an inpatient facility, the length of time that the defendant is detained for treatment will be considered in relation to the maximum sentence the defendant could face if convicted of the crime with which he is charged.

Although states differ in the details, as the amount of time a defendant spends in treatment approaches the maximum sentence, a court will be required to discharge the defendant from treatment. As the defendant has not been convicted of a crime, it would not be appropriate to have the defendant serve what amounts to a longer sentence in a mental health facility than he could face if convicted.

If the defendant is deemed potentially dangerous and the prosecutor is worried about what will happen if the defendant is released back into the community, the prosecutor's office may commence civil commitment proceedings. An order of civil commitment may result in involuntary detention for mental health treatment, even though no criminal charge is pending.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 12, 2018.