Does Mental Illness Render A Defendant Incompetent To Stand Trial?
There is sometimes a misconception regarding a person’s “mental competency” to stand trial for a criminal offense. In Texas, the legal standard is that a person is incompetent if they lack “sufficient present ability to consult with [their] counsel with a reasonable degree of understanding, or a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against [them].” The important word here is “present.” A judge will only find a defendant mentally incompetent if their condition prevents them from assisting in their defense at the time of trial.
Before a judge will find a defendant mentally incompetent, the court must conduct a two-part process. In the first part, the judge conducts an informal inquiry when there is a credible “suggestion” of mental incompetence. If this informal inquiry produces some evidence of incompetency, the next step is to order a competency examination and subsequently hold a formal hearing to decide the issue.
Texas Man Receives 6-Year Sentence for Cocaine Possession Despite Mental Impairments
It is crucial to understand that the mere fact that a person accused of a crime has an underlying mental illness or impairment does not automatically render them incompetent to stand trial. Indeed, a mental illness does not even guarantee that the court will order a formal examination or hearing.
A recent decision from the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals, Aubel v. State, provides a useful illustration of this point. This case involved a Brown County defendant charged with possession of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school. The defendant opted to waive his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty to the charge of “possession of a controlled substance in a drug-free zone.” The defendant decided to let the judge determine the sentence following a bench trial.
Before accepting the plea, the trial judge conducted the first-step informal inquiry into the defendant’s mental competence. The judge asked the defendant about his age, level of education, and mental problems. The defendant said that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. The defendant further indicated that he was taking a variety of medication to treat his disorders.
The judge was satisfied that the defendant was competent to stand trial. Two months later, the court conducted the trial as to punishment. The judge ultimately sentenced the defendant to six years in prison.
On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge should have conducted a second-step formal hearing on his mental competency before proceeding to the sentencing trial. The Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld the defendant’s sentence. The appellate court noted that while there was no question that the defendant “suffered from mental illness,” there was nothing in the trial record that suggested he “did not rationally understand the proceedings against him” or was “unable to communicate or engage with” his attorney during trial proceedings. As such, the defendant met the minimal requirements for mental competency,
Contact Pearland, Texas, Criminal Defense Lawyer Keith B. French Today
If you, or someone in your family, is facing trial and you believe mental competency should be considered as an issue, it is important to work with an experienced Pearland drug crimes defense attorney who will zealously represent your interests in court. Contact Keith B. French Law, PLLC, today to schedule a consultation.