What does it mean to be Competent to Stand Trial?

May 17, 2022 Criminal Defense

One of the most basic tenants of our criminal process system is the requirement that those who are being accused of a crime need to be competent to stand trial. This requirement works alongside the more well-known idea that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. This is because those who are accused of an alleged crime must be capable of properly communicating with the court and their attorney for the justice system to properly try them for any alleged crimes.

Florida Rules of Criminal Proceeding 3.180 states that a defendant must be present at numerous occasions during their criminal trial, including: their first appearance, when pleading guilty or no contest, at all proceedings where the jury is present, and at the rendition of the court’s verdict. However, physical presence is not enough. Under paragraph (b) of the rule, the defendant’s presence is also defined as being able to have a meaningful opportunity to be heard through their counsel. This has been interpreted to mean that the accused must be sufficiently competent to participate in his defense during the proceedings.

While this issue is normally raised by the defendant’s counsel during or before the beginning of a criminal proceeding, this requirement is so important that any side may bring it up at any time. Meaning that the prosecutor or the judge could also bring into question whether the defendant is truly competent enough to understand what he is being faced with at trial.

Florida’s Competency Law

Under Florida Statute Section 916.12, the legislation further codified the criminal proceedings rule by requiring that a person be found to not be competent to stand trial when: 

  1. The defendant is currently lacking the ability to consult with their attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, or
  2. The defendant has no rational and factual understanding of the proceedings that are occurring against him.

Before and after a defendant is convicted, the Florida Supreme Court has stated that the postconviction and trial court must find whether the defendant has the sufficient present ability to consult with their attorney with a reasonable amount of both rational and factual understanding of the pending collateral proceedings.

In cases where the defendant’s competency is at issue, Florida law requires that the Court appoint an expert to examine and determine the defendant’s mental condition. This law helps the court to determine if the defendant’s current mental condition will prevent them from competently standing trial. The expert first decides if the defendant suffers from any mental illnesses and if those illnesses prevent the defendant from proceeding under the competency requirement. Statute 916.12 subsection (3) requires that the expert addresses in their report the defendant’s capacity to:

  1. Appreciate the charges or allegations against them.
  2. Appreciate the range and nature of the possible penalties that they may be facing during the proceedings.
  3. Understand the adversarial nature of the legal process.
  4. Disclose to their attorney facts important to the current proceedings.
  5. Manifest appropriate courtroom behavior.
  6. Testify relevantly.

As well as any other factors the experts deem to be relevant.

The same law states that the defendant will not be deemed unfit to stand trial simply because the report states that they require medication to assist counsel and understand the nature of the proceedings. Even when an expert determines that a defendant lacks the competency to stand trial, the final decision rests with the court. This means that the judge would be the one making the call once all the evidence is presented.

So, what happens if the defendant is deemed to not be competent?       

When a defendant is found by the court to lack the competence to understand the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system and is unable to properly communicate with his counsel, they are still not released or acquitted of whatever crime they committed. Instead, the court normally sends the defendant to a psychiatric facility until he is deemed competent to stand trial. Meaning that once the defendant is appraised to be fully capable of reasonably understanding what he is facing, he will be brought to stand trial for whatever crime he committed.

Unless the defendant is determined to be unlikely to ever regain competency. In this situation, the State is likely to drop the charges but with the caveat that they may refile them later if the defendant does regain competency. Meaning that those who are deemed to lack competency are not getting a get out of jail free card. Instead, they may very well remain in a civil commitment program until they regain competency, only for the justice system to then try them for whatever crime they allegedly committed.

Is this the same as the Insanity Defense?

Not really, Florida Statute Section 775.027, defines the insanity defense as an affirmative defense to criminal prosecution when the defendant was insane at the time of the crime or attempted crime. An affirmative defense is a defense that come into play when the defendant admits the charge but avoids either all or some of the liability by introducing an excuse that justified their actions at the time.

Unlike lack of competency, the insanity defense rests on the notion that the defendant is now sane but due to a mental infirmity, disease, or defect at the time of his criminal activity they did not know what they were doing or the consequences that could occur; or even if they knew what they were doing and the consequences, they did not know that their actions were wrong.

The following must be established for an affirmative defense of insanity:

  • The defendant had a mental disease, infirmity, or defect; and
  • Due to the mental condition, the defendant:
    1. Did not understand what they were doing or the consequences of their actions; or
    2. Even if the defendant was aware of their actions and their consequences, the defendant did not have an understanding that their actions were wrong.

Also, unlike the lack of competency, the defendant is the one who has the burden of proving by “clear and convincing evidence” that they were insane while committing the crime and should not be punished by incarceration. It’s important to understand that with this defense the defendant is not getting away with a crime scotch free. If a judge finds the defendant guilty due to insanity, the judge will commit the defendant to a mental institution. The defendant is committed to the institution once the case concludes,  and sometimes the time spent in the mental institution can last longer than what the defendant would have received in their original prison sentence.

To find out more about the insanity defense explained, find our blog post here.

Mental Health Expert Witnesses

Expert witnesses are often called into cases to help with the facts of the crime. Despite a common confusion though, there is an important difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. This is because a mental health expert witness could be either a forensic psychologist or psychiatrist. A forensic psychiatrist would be used to determine if a defendant is competent to stand trial, and a forensic psychologist would be used to determine if the defendant is deemed legally sane at the time of the crime.

If you would like to find out more about the differences between these two mental health experts and how they can help with your case, click on our blog here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime and believe that they may lack the competency to stand trial or that the insanity plea could be used, it is important to seek out the legal advice of a skilled defense attorney in Tallahassee, Florida. Navigating the legal world is extremely stressful already and a possible mental illness is only going to make things more difficult. Do not let this stop you from receiving the top-quality legal help you or your loved one deserve.

Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients across the state of Florida for various cases. They understand the importance of strategizing a strong defense and are prepared to stand in your corner to fight for your freedom. Don’t hesitate to call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message to receive a free consultation.

Written by Jesus Lozano

Back to Top