Incompetency Proceedings

Los Angeles Incompetency Proceedings Attorneys

When is a Competency Hearing Required?

Criminal defendants in the United States have the right to adequately defend themselves in court. While this right is guaranteed under in Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, not everyone has the mental capacity to defend their best interests before a judge and jury. In the state of California, judges can order courts to hold incompetency proceedings for criminal defendants if they have reasonable doubt about the defendant's competence to stand trial. When a judge declares that a defendant’s mental competency needs to be determined to ensure their rights are upheld, the defendant will have the opportunity to have their legal counsel give an opinion on whether or not the defendant has a reasonable level of understanding and possesses the ability to participate in their defense.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, we proudly stand up for the rights of criminal defendants in all situations, including cases that should not proceed due to their mental incompetency. Thanks to our many years of experience handling complex criminal defense cases and backgrounds in mental health law, we know how and when to use PC 1368 and other mental health diversions that may benefit our clients and protect their rights to a fair trial.

See if an incompetency proceeding could benefit your criminal defense case or that of a loved one. Call (800) 462-7160 to request a no-cost, confidential consultationwith our incompetency proceeding attorneys in Los Angeles.

How Judges Determine Mental Incompetency

As required by PC 1368, judges in California must halt a criminal trial as soon as it is reasonably shown or believed that the defendant is too mentally incompetent to stand trial. This determination can be made by the judge on their own, or it can be brought to the judge’s attention by the defendant’s legal counsel; rarely will a prosecutor bring up the defendant’s potential mental incompetence, and instead, the prosecutor might argue against it.

If a judge suspects that the defendant is mentally incompetent, the following will usually occur:

  1. The judge will make an official statement on court records that the defendant’s mental competency has been called into question.
  2. The judge will ask the defense attorney if they have an opinion on the defendant's mental competency, which may be highly valuable to the judge because the defense attorney works directly with the defendant.
  3. Based on the evidence and statements made by the defense attorney, the judge can decide to suspend court proceedings. If this is done, the court will order a mental health evaluation of the defendant in a state-run or -approved mental health institution, which may take up to three days to complete.
  4. A hearing will be held to review the results of the mental health evaluation. During this hearing, the defense must prove that the defendant is too mentally incompetent to receive a fair trial.
  5. If a preponderance of evidence shows that the defendant is mentally incompetent, the court will order a suspension of the criminal proceedings until the defendant gains enough mental competence to understand those proceedings. If the court does not find the defendant mentally incompetent, the original trial will resume.

Can I Request a Competency Hearing?

If a judge doesn’t question a defendant’s mental competence, an attorney can still address the issue by declaring their own doubt regarding the defendant’s ability to understand the charges they’re facing or participate in their own defense. The attorney must first prove that a defendant is mentally incompetent and produce substantial and convincing evidence showing mental disability at the time of the incident.

What Happens at a Competency Hearing?

A competency hearing will occur in court before a judge. A court-appointed psychiatrist, licensed psychologist, and/or developmental disability expert will examine the defendant and provide their professional opinion on whether that individual is able to stand trial.

Evidence that is examined to determine competency can include:

  • Medical reports
  • Psychological evaluations
  • Witness statements
  • Defendant’s statements

It is important to note that a competency hearing is a civil proceeding, not a criminal trial. The defense attorney in this proceeding is not held to the legal standard of having to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant is mentally incompetent. Instead, the attorney’s goal is to show there is more evidence pointing toward the defendant’s inability to fully understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to provide rational assistance with building a defense strategy.

Proving a Defendant is Mentally Incompetent

A key part of incompetence proceedings is proving that mental incompetence exists to a degree that it interferes with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. Defendants are not advised to try to argue this point on their own. Instead, such delicate and complicated proceedings should be trusted to a highly experienced criminal defense team, like the attorneys of Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP in Los Angeles.

When arguing mental incompetence, our team can look for evidence and devise arguments that show the:

  • Defendant cannot understand the nature and purpose of the criminal proceedings or trial;
  • Defendant cannot help their defense attorney in a meaningful or helpful way; and,
  • Defendant cannot understand their role in the criminal proceedings as the defendant.

If we can prove that the above three situations are true, we will have a stronger foundation on which to argue for incompetency proceedings as permitted under California PC 1368.

Outcomes of a Successful Incompetency Proceeding

If the court finds the defendant to be mentally incompetent, the trial will be suspended. At that point, the court will likely decide how the defendant will receive treatment that may make them mentally competent enough in the future to allow the trial to resume.

Usually, the court will use one of just two options after suspending a trial for mental incompetence:

  • The court will commit the defendant to a state mental hospital or treatment facility, which may include such a facility within a jailhouse or prison.
  • The court will commit the defendant to receive treatment on an outpatient basis, such as through a specialized mental health care center.

Mental Incompetency Is Not Insanity

Importantly, mental incompetency is not the same as insanity in criminal cases. Mental incompetence refers to a defendant’s inability to understand the criminal proceedings and their role in them as the criminally accused defendant. Insanity refers to a defendant’s inability to understand the nature of their alleged criminal actions, as well as their potential inability to follow the law due to mental health complications.

Under California criminal law, a defendant can be:

  • Sane and mentally competent
  • Insane and mentally competent
  • Sane and mentally incompetent
  • Insane and mentally incompetent

The determination of a defendant’s competence and sanity will make a significant impact on the criminal proceedings. Mental incompetence can halt the criminal proceedings but may eventually result in the defendant being held criminally responsible for their alleged actions; insanity won’t necessarily halt the criminal proceedings, but it may prevent the court from holding the defendant criminally responsible for their alleged actions.

Can an Incompetency Proceeding Help? Call to Find Out

Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP can help if you or a loved one is mentally unfit to stand trial due to incompetence, insanity, or another reason that calls for a mental health diversion. Our legal team is known throughout Los Angeles and Southern California for coming up with creative legal solutions that consider all possible avenues given under the law. We are always prepared to defend a client’s rights, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to our law firm the moment you need counsel and representation.

To schedule a case consultationwith one of our defense attorneys, give us a call today at (800) 462-7160.

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