Mental Illness & Criminal Law: What is Legal Competency?

October 17, 2020

By Criminal Defense Laywer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

“Competency” is the ability to stand trial.  Texas law provides a complex web of procedures which deal with making sure an accused is mentally capable of being tried.

“Incompetency Defined”

It is defined by Tex.Code.Crim.P. 46B.003 which holds:

(a) A person is incompetent to stand trial if the person does not have:

(1) sufficient present ability to consult with the person’s lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; or

(2) a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against the person.

(b) A defendant is presumed competent to stand trial and shall be found competent to stand trial unless proved incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence.

Translation:  competency is a somewhat low threshold.

A Rational, Factual Understanding Isn’t Enough

A misnomer is where a person understands basics about their charge such as the nature of the accusation, the role of defense counsel, the prosecutor and the judge – that they are okay to be tried.  Even judges make this mistake.

The person’s “sufficient present ability to consult with the person’s lawyer” is also crucial.  Often highly intelligent and high functioning defendants can still sometimes not have a coherent discussion with counsel.

Many people suffering from things like severe anxiety, manic behavior, or racing thoughts simply can’t keep it together for the time it takes for their lawyer to properly advise them – let alone try to get details to mount an effective defense.  To me, this is the very essence of “incompetency.”

Suggestion of Incompetency

If a lawyer is concerned their client may have enough issues which affect their ability to stand trial – the lawyer can and should file with the Court a “Suggestion of Incompetency.”  It puts the case on pause though it does sound a bit harsh.  The prosecution can file the motion and in some instances the Court can make the suggestion as well.

The trial judge then appoints a mental health professional to do a competency evaluation.  The Court then holds a hearing after the evaluation is complete and finds either defendant is competent to stand trial or he/she is incompetent for the purposes of trial.  If they are competent then the case resumes.

What Happens When the Accused is Found to be “Incompetent”

Mental health professionals attempt to restore the accused to competency through mental health treatment.  It can be in-patient or out-patient depending on the severity of the charge, whether the person is on bond, and the resources available to the county.

Any confinement in a state hospital cannot exceed the maximum punishment range for the charge.  In other words the maximum punishment for assault causing bodily injury is 1-year.  In theory a person could be confined for the entire year being ‘restored’ but no longer.

Mental health providers routinely update the Court and if the person is restored to competency — sometimes as simply as getting a person the correct medication — the case then proceeds.

What Happens When the Defense And Prosecution Disagree About Competency?

Most of the time the Judge, prosecution and defense agree on competency issues.  In cases where we don’t, Defendant has the right to invoke a right to a jury to prove they are, in fact, incompetent to stand trial.  This would be a way of demanding help for mental illness where the prosecution and/or Judge minimize the impact of mental health or see it as an excuse to avoid responsibility for a crime.

Why Would Someone’s Own Lawyer File a Suggestion of Incompetency Which Could Result in Confinement?

This is a fantastic question.  And perhaps they shouldn’t for this very reason depending on the severity (or lack of severity) of the charges.  A lawyer hired to defend a client from the charges they are facing.  A client needs to be able to fight those charges.  If a lawyer were to enter into a plea bargain or have the client participate in a trial they doesn’t understand – this could very often lead to a far worse result than mental health restoration in a state hospital.  Again – this precise issue is a fantastic debate without a clear answer.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.


Mental Illness & Criminal Law: Mental Health Bonds

October 16, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

www.texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Texas law does provide an avenue for the mentally ill to get out of jail without having to pay a bond.  Not everyone who suffers from mental illness is entitled to relief under Texas law.  As you might expect, Texas law lags in different areas for various reasons.

 

Mental Health Bonds

 

Tex.Code.Crim.P. 17.032 allows for a mental health bond.  The judge is required to let the person get out of jail for free — i.e. not have to pay a bond amount — provided they comply with the statute.

Here are the qualifications for a Mental Health Bond:

  • They cannot be charged with a violent offense;
  • They cannot have been previously convicted of a violent offense;
  • They must be examined by mental health personnel with the County;
  • The report by the County must conclude –
    • Defendant suffers from mental illness or intellectual disability;
    • Defendant is otherwise legally competent to stand trial;
    • Defendant is recommended to receive mental health treatment or treatment for the intellectual disability;
  • The Judge must also find the county is capable of treatment.

If all of these criterion are met, then the Judge is required to release Defendant.  Typically a treatment plan is implemented which may include in-patient or outpatient services along with a host of other requirements the person must comply with.

Shortcomings of the Mental Health PR Bond Statute

The statute isn’t perfect.  Many counties don’t have the infrastructure or ability to treat the mentally ill – so a person can actually be kept in jail because their county is unable to treat them.

Also, the mental health release provision allows people in a certain “box” or range of mental illness too — if a person is mentally ill, yet not so deteriorated they are legally incompetent for trial — then they qualify for the bond.  If they are too mentally ill, then they don’t qualify.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.