Under California law, a defendant is mentally incompetent to stand trial if, as a result of a mental disorder or developmental disability, he cannot: (1) understand the nature of the criminal proceedings, or (2) assist counsel in preparing a defense in a rational manner, as the person simply isn't able to defend against criminal charges. But what dos that actually mean? It's often clearer to explain looking to whether a person is competent to stand trial. The courts have declared a that a person is competent to stand trial if they have “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding” and have "a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." (Dusky v. United States (1960) 362 U.S. 402.) Unlike insanity, the inquiry looks to the person's current cognitive functioning, not that at the time the crime was committed.
There is a general misunderstanding out there that a person can be found incompetent to stand trial if they display strange behavior or are being uncooperative with the process. This is not the case. The person needs to demonstrate a genuine inability to assist with their defense.
As they are often those who work most closely with affected defendants it is often defense counsel who raises a doubt that her client is competent to stand trial, but this doubt can be raised the the judge or any other official involved in the system. From there, that doubt is declared on the record and the defendant is evaluated my a qualified mental health provider to make the determination as to whether the defendant can assist in their own defense.
If the mental health provider believes the person is competent, and after a hearing, if required, the court agrees, the criminal proceedings resume. If the mental health provider agrees that the defendant is not competent, and after a hearing, if required, the court agrees, then the defendant is ordered to participate in competency training, a term we use to describe the process of trying to restore the person to company, through counseling or medication. This training is typically done via the defendants commitment to a mental health hospital or placement is a suitable outpatient program. During this time, a judge can order that the defendant be administered medication against their will.
If the defendant can be restored to competency, the criminal proceedings will be reinstated, picking up from where the proceedings previously left off. If they can't, then the defendant may be forced to remain in the custody of the mental health care facility for an amount of time up to the maximum term for the offense for which they were charged.
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