By Brian Goza
In Texas, you must be competent to stand trial before proceeding in any criminal case. For most cases in criminal practice, this issue doesn’t arise. Defendants are presumed by law to be competent. Sometimes though, a defendant may exhibit behavior that raises a question as to whether or not they are competent.
A competent defendant in Texas must have sufficient present ability to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and must have a rational and factual understanding of the proceedings against him. To be found incompetent, it must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant lacks at least one of these abilities.
The question of competency is usually raised by the filing of a motion to test competency of the defendant. This motion may be filed by either the counsel for the defense or by the prosecutor. Additionally, the court may also suggest incompetence if it becomes aware of circumstances that could lead to the belief that the defendant lacks competence. The court then performs an informal inquiry to determine whether or not the defendant should undergo a full competence evaluation. The court may then appoint an independent expert, usually a psychiatrist or psychologist, to evaluate the defendant.
After a finding of incompetence, the goal of the justice system is to have the defendant treated so that he can regain competence to stand trial. In most cases, this is done on an inpatient commitment to a mental health facility such as a State School. In limited cases, when the defendant is deemed not a danger, the treatment may be performed on an outpatient treatment. When the defendant has regained competency, he returns to court to face the charges against him.
It’s important to remember that the question of competency to stand trial is not tantamount to a finding of insanity. Insanity is a defense to the changed conduct and therefore deals with the defendant’s mental state at the time of the alleged offense. The question of competency deals with the defendant’s present mental fitness to stand trial. The standards for an insanity defense are different and higher than those for a finding of incompetence.
Many times, defendant’s may be found incompetent despite the existence of significant and difficult issues such as bi-polar disorder, addiction and substance abuse, debilitating anxiety and depression disorder, schizophrenia and many other psychiatric disorders. If the defendant is found incompetent, it is in no way a get out of jail free card.