Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence


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Can you be competent but insane? Insane but competent?

Some states do not have an insanity defense at all. Competency is determined before the beginning of trial. Insanity, on the other hand, is determined at the end of the trial with the verdict. If there is a reasonable basis to believe competency is at issue, the court has an absolute duty to order an evaluation.


  • Competence (law) - Wikipedia!
  • Competency to Stand Trial.
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Based on the outcome of the evaluation, the judge will determine whether the defendant is competent to stand trial. Insanity, on the other hand, is an affirmative defense that must be pled by the defendant. The competency requirement arises from United States federal law, as a guarantee under the due process clause of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the insanity defense is determined by state law, and varies between states. Some states do not have the insanity defense at all, but all states must consider competency because it is a matter of constitutionality. When a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, it merely causes a hiatus in the criminal proceedings. In , the Supreme Court held that a defendant deemed incompetent may not be held for a longer period than is reasonable to determine whether he will be able to attain competence in the foreseeable future.

If a defendant is found insane, he will most likely be committed to a psychiatric hospital. However, commitment procedures vary depending on the state. Some states require a commitment hearing, others do it automatically. The length of time of commitment also varies. He ends up killing his wife during one of these episodes. He would most likely be deemed competent to stand trial, but also be acquitted by reason of insanity.

Say that a wife has trouble understanding her surroundings because of a hallucinatory mental illness, and perpetually believes that she is still in middle school. One day, she finds out that her husband cheated on her, gets angry, and kills him. At the beginning of the criminal proceedings, she sincerely believes that the courtroom is her middle school auditorium, that the proceedings are a homecoming dance, that the lawyers are students, and that the judge is the principal.

In this case, she would be deemed incompetent to stand trial. However, she would never go to trial unless, or until, she is deemed to have reached competency. Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

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Competency to Stand Trial

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As a result, there are often differences of expert opinions based on different interpretations of the facts or psychometric tests. Second, by definition, the justice system is dealing with a defendant who has a severe mental illness or intellectual disability. Since the system presumes a deterrent effect, rational understanding and knowing, intelligent, and voluntary choices, it does not work smoothly when the actors involved are not rational, do not understand the proceedings, and cannot make those kinds of well-reasoned choices.

Moreover, the governing law is about a clear as mud. In my opinion and experience , even seasoned prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges routinely mess these cases up badly, which has resulted in a hodge-podge of inconsistent law.

Section 15

As a result, these defenses are rarely used. Even when they could be used, there are times where the defenses are waived for strategic reasons. In North Dakota, there are three types of mental health defenses: 1 competency; 2 criminal responsibility; and 3 a culpability mitigation defense, with competency and criminal responsibility defenses being raised most often. Each type of defense will be discussed below. Competency is a fundamental and constitutional prerequisite to the government prosecuting a defendant. Stated differently, if the person is not competent, the government cannot prosecute.

A recent high-profile example involving this defense was the James Holmes case. Holmes is the former graduate student who walked into a movie theater in Colorado in and shot up the place, killing 12 people. While in jail, his mental health deteriorated so severely that the prosecution was put on hold. After lengthy treatment and a medication regimen, he eventually regained his competency.

He was then tried and convicted of murder.

General Law - Part I, Title XVII, Chapter , Section 15

United States. In Dusky , the Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to permit an incompetent person to stand trial. Because the defendant is not competent to make a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent decision about waiving the competency defense, the defendant cannot waive the defense. To comply with that requirement, our criminal code now contains a statute addressing the Dusky holding. Section This statute applies to two types of people: those who cannot understand the proceedings against them and those who cannot assist in their defense. For instance, a person with a very low IQ due to a developmental disability may not understand the proceedings against them.

The person might not understand they are even in trouble, much less that their alleged conduct was wrong, or who the judge is or what the judge does, or who the attorneys are, or what role they play in the criminal justice system. Likewise, a person who cannot understand or communicate with their lawyer cannot assist in their defense.

The evaluator then prepares a report outlining his or her opinions on whether the defendant is competent. If the opinion is that the person is not competent, the evaluator then is required to render an opinion on whether the defendant will regain competency in the foreseeable future.

If the judge finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the person is not competent, the proceedings must be either suspended in the case where the person will likely regain competency in the foreseeable future or dismissed in the case where the person is not likely to regain competency in the foreseeable future. In either situation, the judge can refer the defendant into guardianship proceedings, civil commitment proceedings, or other appropriate treatment at a human service center or other treatment facility.

Some courts have treated the law allowing the judge to refer someone into these proceedings as the same as being able to order the defendant committed under these procedures. This is one of those common mistakes made in these cases. If that happens, the North Dakota Supreme Court requires the judge to make sure the defendant is given all of the rights guaranteed in our civil commitment statutes. Criminal responsibility defenses are related to but different than competency. This is our equivalent to the insanity defense, although it is slightly broader than the traditional definition of insanity.

It is also an affirmative defense, which means the defendant needs to raise the defense and prove it up by a preponderance of the evidence. Also, unlike a competency defense, criminal responsibility defenses can be waived if the defendant is competent at the time of trial and the defendant makes a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of the defense. In order to claim a lack of criminal responsibility, the defense must provide the court and the prosecution with pretrial notice that the defense will be used at trial.

Before filing the notice, the defense typically has an expert opinion from a psychologist in hand saying the defendant was not criminally responsible at the time of the crime. The defense is a bit different than competency in that with a competency defense, there is never a determination of guilt or innocence.

A famous example of this involved a man in the s who decapitated another after mistaking his head for a pumpkin. Clearly if that were true, the murderer could not understand that his conduct was wrong, and his reality was seriously distorted from reality. When a person is found not guilty by lack of criminal responsibility, that verdict triggers a secondary evaluation and commitment process. The judge orders another evaluation of the defendant to determine whether the person can be treated effectively and if the person is dangerous to society.

The Court holds a mental health dispositional hearing, essentially a commitment hearing, within 90 days of the verdict.

At this hearing, the defendant has the burden to show he is not dangerous and should not be committed to treatment. If the defendant cannot prove he is not dangerous, the Court can commit the person to a treatment facility and require the person to accept generally accepted treatment for his mental illness.

This commitment can last for the maximum time the person could have spent in jail. In other words, for a class C felony offense with a 5-year maximum penalty, a person can be committed to treatment for a maximum term of up to 5 years. Of course, the defendant has the right to review the commitment terms once at least every year. As I mentioned above, there are situations where I will waive this defense because the civil commitment following a criminal responsibility defense results in longer incarceration than if we had not raised the defense.

Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence
Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence Mental Disorder and Criminal Law: Responsibility, Punishment and Competence

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