Incompetent to Stand Trial? Everything You Need to Know

September 7, 2022 Criminal Defense

Sometimes, when a suspect is arrested and charged with a criminal offense, they have no idea what is actually going on. This can be due to a mental illness, mental defect, or other types of infirmity that result in the individual being incapable of understanding the nature of the charges against them. This can lead to the criminal defendant being unable to assist in their own defense.

When this happens, courts in Florida deem the criminal defendant incompetent to stand trial, and the criminal proceedings will need to be paused until a time when the criminal defendant is deemed competent to continue.

Florida Statute Section 916.12

Mental competence to proceed through trial is covered in Florida Statute Section 916.12, which states that:

  1. “A defendant is incompetent to proceed within the meaning of this chapter if the defendant does not have sufficient present ability to consult with her or his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding or if the defendant has no rational, as well as factual, understanding of the proceedings against her or him.”

In essence, incompetence is found when experts find that a defendant does not have the ability to help prepare a defense for themselves or understand the criminal proceedings they are undergoing. Incompetency can be raised at any time during a criminal prosecution.

The statute also covers how a criminal defendant can be deemed incompetent:

  1. “Mental health experts appointed pursuant to s. 916.115 shall first determine whether the defendant has a mental illness and, if so, consider the factors related to the issue of whether the defendant meets the criteria for competence to proceed as described in subsection (1). A defendant must be evaluated by no fewer than two experts before the court commits the defendant or takes other action authorized by this chapter or the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure, except if one expert finds that the defendant is incompetent to proceed and the parties stipulate to that finding, the court may commit the defendant or take other action authorized by this chapter or the rules without further evaluation or hearing, or the court may appoint no more than two additional experts to evaluate the defendant. Notwithstanding any stipulation by the state and the defendant, the court may require a hearing with testimony from the expert or experts before ordering the commitment of a defendant.”

In sum, courts will appoint experts that will examine the defendant’s mental deficiencies, illnesses, or infirmities. They will deduce whether such a mental condition exists, and then conclude whether the condition impairs the defendant’s ability to defend the charges against him.

When considering whether the defendant is competent, the expert evaluating the defendant must consider and include in their report the defendant’s capacity to:

“(a) Appreciate the charges or allegations against the defendant.

(b) Appreciate the range and nature of possible penalties, if applicable, that may be imposed in the proceedings against the defendant.

(c) Understand the adversarial nature of the legal process.

(d) Disclose to counsel facts pertinent to the proceedings at issue.

(e) Manifest appropriate courtroom behavior.

(f) Testify relevantly.”

After Incompetence – What Happens?

If the expert deems the criminal defendant incompetent to proceed, the expert must report the recommended treatment for the defendant to undergo in order to later attain the competence to proceed. The report should include the mental illness, defects, or infirmities causing the incompetence, the treatment plans appropriate to remedy the incompetence and an explanation of which plan of treatment is first priority, the availability of the proposed treatments, and the likelihood that the defendant will regain competence by undergoing the proposed treatments.

It is important to note that a finding of incompetence will not release the defendant from the charges against them. Instead, the defendant will be sent for treatment until deemed competent. Usually, the defendant will be re-evaluated a few times a year. When a defendant is deemed to likely never reach competency, the charges may be dismissed, and the defendant will be committed to psychiatric care for a long period of time using a civil commitment procedure.

Intoxication and Incompetence

If a criminal defendant cannot understand the nature of the proceedings or assist in their own defense due to psychotropic medication, they will not be automatically deemed incompetent – even if the defendant’s mental functioning is dependent upon the medication. Psychotropic medications refer to drugs used to treat mental health or emotional health issues like antipsychotic, antidepressant, antianxiety, and antimanic medications.

Incompetence v. Insanity

Many people mix up incompetence with insanity. A finding of not guilty by reason of insanity is very different from incompetent – it concludes that a defendant should not be found guilty, or culpable, for the alleged offense due to their mental state that the time of the alleged crime. The insanity defense puts forth that the defendant could not understand the wrongfulness of their conduct or the consequences of their actions, so they should not be found culpable for the wrongdoing.

Case Illustration

In 2017, Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals (DCA) clarified specifics surrounding competency issues in Sheheane v. State. There, the court held that mental competency is included in due process, signifying the importance of a defendant being able to understand the charges against them and assist in their own defense. The defendant raised the issue of the defendant’s incompetency, and the trial court set a date for a competency hearing. However, the hearing never took place. Later in the proceedings, the defendant entered a plea for the charges against him. The defendant was seen to have waived his competency rights and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Upon review, the 1st DCA found that once a court has reasonable grounds to question a defendant’s competence, a holding must be held. A defendant cannot expressly or implicitly waive their rights to a competency hearing.

The court highlighted the importance of this due process right, stating that “the nature of competency goes to the heart of whether a defendant has the capacity to make a cogent, legally binding decision.”

Tallahassee Criminal Defense Attorney

Due process rights protect the essential essences of fairness and justice in criminal trials. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida and believe incompetence might play a role, focus on retaining an experienced and qualified Tallahassee criminal defense attorneyDon Pumphrey and the members of the legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have the experience and passion to ensure that all defenses are explored in your or a loved one’s favor. Call us today at (850) 681-7777 or send an online message to discuss your case during an open and free consultation with an attorney in our legal team.

Written by Gabi D’Esposito

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