What happens when a defendant’s mental illness is so severe that he or she can’t understand the charges against him or her, appreciate the nature of the court proceedings or assist in his or her own defense?
In those situations, a court is obliged to consider the defendant incompetent to stand trial. The defendant is then usually sent to a mental health facility to receive treatment, with the goal being to restore competency so that the trial can proceed. If the defendant isn’t restored to competency after a certain amount of time, the prosecution’s case usually has to be dismissed—although the prosecution is free to refile the charges at a later time.
This is the choice that prosecution is likely to face soon in a court in Montgomery County, Maryland. The defendant in the case, the mother of two young children who went missing while in her care, has been declared incompetent for the ninth time. She’ll be returned to the mental health facility for ongoing care—but the likelihood that she’ll be restored to competency seems less and less likely as time goes on.
Incompetency is a defense that can be raised before a trial begins or even in the middle of an active trial, but it puts an immediate halt to any further proceedings. It also prevents the police or the prosecution from any further interrogation of the defendant until the presumption of incompetency is either rebutted or the defendant is restored to competency.
In a situation like this, where two small children are involved and still missing, police and prosecutors may feel particularly frustrated because the defendant can’t be subjected to additional questioning. If she can’t understand the proceedings, she’s also unable to appreciate the possible ramifications of anything she might confess to police. In effect, being declared incompetent protects the defendant’s constitutional right to remain silent and not incriminate herself.
It’s important to note that incompetency can arise from several different issues. In the case of the Maryland mother, mental illness is alleged. However, someone might be incompetent because of a low I.Q. or another severe mental defect. In situations like that, no amount of treatment is going to create a competent defendant.
If you’re the friend or family member of a defendant with a mental issue that could make him or her incompetent, alert his or her criminal defense attorney to the possibility.
Source: WJLA.com, “Catherine Hoggle ruled incompetent to stand trial, again,” ABC7, Dec. 12, 2016
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