There’s a few concepts about mental states, and how they affect a defendant during legal proceedings.

Let’s cover the first : Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial. What does that mean?

Here’s the scenario: State of Michigan is charging that the Defendant committed a crime (duh). Defendant meets with attorney. After the first meeting, the attorney wonders a few things about the defendant, based on the D’s behavior.

Such as: he can’t remember facts of the alleged crime. Sure, he could have been too intoxicated . . . . however, he can’t remember where he lived before he moved here. He knows he’s in jail, and he doesn’t like that, but can’t really seem to keep the conversation going to help his attorney understand his version of events. And maybe he has a few odd gestures, expressions. (More signs of mental illness are listed here, from the national alliance for mental illness).

You see, the idea of “due process” is broad. It includes that the defendant, to have due process, has to understand the proceedings and be able to assist his attorney in defending the case. If the D can’t do that, then he is mentally incompetent.  And if a defendant is  mentally incompetent, then the proceedings are halted (but not dismissed).

Any questions about a D’s competence should be raised by the attorney as soon as apparent. (However, the prosecutor or the judge can raise the issue as well). The defense attorney should make a motion regarding competence that asserts that 1. the D can’t assist his attorney in defending the case and 2. possibly, the D lacked the capacity to appreciate that his conduct was wrong, or didn’t conform to requirements of law. That last sentence is the lead-in for the affirmative defense of NGI, or not guilty by reason of insanity. Also called “legally insane.”

After that motion is made, the court will refer the D to an interview by a forensic psychologist to make a determination of competency. The report of the psychologist is then released to the court, attorneys, etc.

Option 1: the Defendant is found not competent. Just because a D is found incompetent does not mean that there will never be a trial. Instead, the next step is that the D has to have mental health treatment – and the court issues an order for this – so that he will become competent to stand trial, at a later date.

This idea seems to also offend the D’s right to speedy trial, as guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment. However, dismissing the case based on competence is not fair to the state (sadly). Also, the speedy trial right has never been interpreted to have a definite deadline by the Supreme Court. For example, the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled that “any delay to trial longer than 24 months would prejudice justice.” Michigan however, does limit the amount of time a D can be treated, (MCL 330.2034) to no longer than 15 months, or 1/3 of the maximum sentence which the D would have if convicted, whichever is shorter.

Also, technically speaking, the D is not being punished by receiving treatment, as he is no longer in jail, he’s in the hospital, receiving treatment.

Option 2: Defendant is found competent. If a defendant is interviewed, and found to be competent, an alternative to halting trial for D’s treatment  is a “no contest” plea, which would be based on the idea that he was too intoxicated/ abusing substances, etc, to be able to recall the crime. But use of alcohol /substances is not a defense, and does not make a person legally insane at the time of the crime.

Also, some crimes are open to alternative sentencing, through mental health treatment courts. This is a diversion program, that is essentially the same as sobriety court. It requires that the offender plead to a crime, then complete mental health treatment for a period of months. In exchange, the state will “nolle prosse” the charges, once the program is completed by the offender. The likelihood of repeat offenses goes down significantly when the program is completed. However, it is much like intensive outpatient, and requires a lot of participation by the offender, such as 3-4 weekly appointments at counseling, group therapy, probation /parole appointments, and regular medication review.

Next installment: legally insane – or Not Guilty by reason of Insanity.