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Penal Code 1368 PC | Competency to Stand Trial

 

Penal Code 1368 PC | Competency to Stand Trial in California

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in California, it’s important to understand your rights under Penal Code 1368 PC. This law deals with competency to stand trial – meaning whether you’re mentally fit to go through the court process. Being found incompetent doesn’t get you off the hook, but it does pause things until you’re able to understand the charges and work with your lawyer. Let’s break down how 1368 PC works and what happens if you’re declared incompetent.

What is Competency Under Penal Code 1368?

Under California law, criminal defendants have the right to a fair trial and to understand the charges against them. But if someone has a mental illness or disability that prevents them from grasping the proceedings, they can’t exercise those rights. PC 1368 is designed to address this issue. It lets judges suspend cases if there are doubts about the defendant’s mental competency.

Specifically, 1368 PC kicks in if at any point the judge thinks the defendant may not be able to:

  • Understand the nature of the criminal proceedings
  • Understand the charges against them
  • Help their attorney present a defense

This is different from an insanity defense, which is when mental illness prevented someone from knowing right from wrong when the crime occurred. Incompetency only pauses the case until the person can understand it and work with their lawyer.

How Judges Assess Competency Under 1368 PC

Judges can raise competency issues at any point in the case if they have a reasonable doubt based on the evidence. According to Penal Code 1368, here’s what happens next:

  1. The judge states their doubt about competency on the record
  2. Criminal proceedings are suspended
  3. The court appoints psychiatrists or psychologists to examine the defendant
  4. A competency hearing is held before a judge or jury
  5. The defense must prove incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence
  6. If found incompetent, the case stays suspended until the defendant can understand it and assist their attorney

This process ensures someone’s constitutional rights aren’t violated by continuing a case they don’t grasp. It’s not about getting defendants off the hook – just pausing things until they are able to exercise their trial rights.

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When Does the Issue of Competency Come Up?

In most cases, competency questions arise early when the defendant first appears in court. The judge interacts with them during arraignment and may doubt their ability to understand the charges and proceedings based on their behavior. But competency can potentially become an issue at any stage, even after conviction.

Defense attorneys can also request an evaluation under PC 1368 if they believe their client cannot rationally assist with their defense. Some signs of potential incompetency include:

  • Incoherent speech
  • Confusion
  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Severely disorganized thinking

However, the final decision lies with the judge. Attorneys can request a competency assessment, but the judge ultimately decides whether to suspend proceedings for an evaluation.

The Competency Evaluation Process

After the judge states their doubt about competency on the record, the next step is suspending criminal proceedings and appointing experts to examine the defendant. Typically, the court will order psychiatric evaluations by either:

  • A court-appointed psychiatrist
  • A court-appointed psychologist
  • Another court-appointed expert

In Los Angeles County, cases get transferred to Department 95, also known as the Mental Health Courthouse. This department handles competency evaluations and hearings. The goal of the psych evaluation is for the doctor to determine if the defendant can understand the charges and court process and rationally assist counsel in their defense.

The Competency Hearing

After the evaluation, the next phase is the competency hearing itself. This hearing involves presenting evidence about the defendant’s competency and asking the judge or jury to make a determination. Here are some key points about 1368 PC competency hearings:

  • They are civil proceedings, not criminal
  • They can take place before a judge or jury (if requested)
  • The defense has the burden of proving incompetency by a preponderance of the evidence
  • The hearing involves testimony from psychiatric experts who examined the defendant
  • The defense can introduce other evidence like medical records

If incompetency is established, criminal proceedings remain suspended until the defendant’s mental state improves enough to go forward. So the case isn’t dismissed, just put on hold.

Restoring Competency Under PC 1368

Once someone is declared incompetent under Penal Code 1368, the next step is treatment to restore their ability to understand the charges and proceedings. There are several paths this can take:

  • Outpatient treatment – The defendant undergoes counseling, therapy, medication, etc. while living at home
  • Inpatient treatment – The defendant resides at a psychiatric hospital or locked facility and receives intensive psychiatric care
  • Jail-based competency treatment – The county jail provides classes and programming aimed at restoring competency

Most defendants are first referred to outpatient competency treatment. This allows them to live at home while working to improve their mental state. However, if issues persist, the court may order inpatient hospitalization or jail-based treatment instead.

Once doctors believe competency is restored, criminal proceedings can resume. But first the court will hold a hearing to verify the defendant is now able to understand the case and work with their attorney.

Long-Term Incompetency Under PC 1368

Some defendants struggle to achieve competency even after extensive treatment. When it seems clear they won’t improve enough to go to trial, there are a few options:

  • Have a conservator appointed to make their legal decisions
  • Face civil commitment to a mental institution
  • Have the charges dropped – but new ones may be filed if competency improves

Dismissing charges is very rare. More often, the case remains suspended indefinitely while the defendant receives mental health treatment or lives under conservatorship. The goal is to balance their well-being with public safety.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a judge find someone incompetent against the advice of doctors?

Yes. While judges often rely heavily on psychiatric evaluations, the ultimate decision is up to their discretion. They may rule someone incompetent even if doctors believe they are fit for trial.

Does incompetency mean the charges are dropped?

No. Being found incompetent pauses the criminal case until the defendant improves, but it does not dismiss the charges against them. However, charges can potentially be dropped later if competency is never restored.

Can a defendant be forced to take medication to restore competency?

Maybe. A judge can order involuntary medication if it’s medically appropriate and the defendant lacks capacity to make their own treatment decisions. But non-medication options are usually tried first.

What if incompetency is due to an intellectual disability?

Developmental disorders and intellectual disabilities can also affect competency under PC 1368. If the disability is permanent, charges may ultimately have to be dismissed if competency can’t be restored through treatment and education.

Can juries decide competency in a 1368 hearing?

Yes, a defendant has the right to request a jury determination of competency. The defense must affirmatively ask for a jury hearing – otherwise, the judge will decide.

Talk to an Attorney About PC 1368

Being found mentally incompetent can be confusing and stressful. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can answer your questions about Penal Code 1368 and represent your or your loved one’s interests in court. Contact a local attorney today to discuss your case and options.

 

Sources:

[1] California Rules of Court: Title Four Rules

[2] Mental Competency for Trial in California | Penal Code 1368

[3] Section 1368 – Doubt about mental competence of defendant during pendency of action, Cal. Pen. Code § 1368

[4] PC 1368 Motions Explained: Competency to Stand Trial & Criminal Defense

[5] CA Penal Code Section 1368 | Mental Competency for Trial

[6] Bill Text: CA SB349 | 2023-2024 | Regular Session | Amended

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