Understanding Competency To Stand Trial In Criminal Cases

In 2020, nearly 53 million Americans reported suffering from mental illness. That’s almost 1 in 5 adults 18 or older living with mental illness.

The 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals right to a fair trial. In our legal system, defendants can’t stand trial for a crime if they are found mentally incompetent. It is critically important to have an empathetic and understanding criminal defense attorney in these cases.

The standard proof for competency to stand trial is whether the defendant shows a sufficient present ability to confer with their lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether they have a rational AND factual understanding of the proceedings against them.

Are you facing a criminal offense while dealing with a mental health issue? Contact the team at Varghese Summersett to speak with a competency defense lawyer and protect your rights.

The stakes are high. Hire the best lawyers.

This post will explain competency in the Texas legal system, how it’s determined and handled, and the options available to those deemed incompetent to stand trial.

What does competency mean in Texas legal proceedings?

Competency in the Texas legal system means the defendant understands the proceedings and plays a role in their defense.

Incompetency causes an impasse toward a trial or conviction. How strong the prosecutor’s case is against the defendant doesn’t matter. Incompetency doesn’t prevent law enforcement from making an arrest or prosecutors from filing charges. However, it stops the legal process from proceeding if the defendant is deemed incompetent.

Take note: It’s important to emphasize that a determination of competency applies to the defendant’s present mental state, not their mental state at the time of the alleged criminal offense. This is a distinction between the legal defense of insanity. Incompetency to stand trial is not a defense against the underlying offense. It’s a defense against whether the defendant is mentally capable of handling a trial. Legal proceedings can usually continue if and when the defendant is deemed competent.

A skilled competency defense lawyer with experience handling mental health issues will guide you through the process.

How is competency determined in Texas?

Texas judges evaluate competency on a case-by-case basis, typically with the assistance of psychologists. Judges have the authority to order a defendant to take medication to address a condition if the medicine makes them competent.

A judge must determine competency as soon as it is raised.

Both sides are allowed to raise the issue of competency. And judges can raise the issue if neither side does if they observe signs of incompetency in the defendant’s behavior, showing a lack of basic understanding of the elements of the proceedings.

Generally, a competency evaluation uses a very lenient standard and is typically met unless a defendant is struggling with a severe mental illness.

Clients should always be completely honest with their competency defense lawyer about their current mental state.

Judges typically rely on the opinion of a psychologist but can also use their courtroom observations and judgment when determining a defendant’s competency.

Judges consider the defendant’s ability to understand the charges against them, the penalties they face with a conviction, and their ability to make decisions and communicate with their legal counsel.

Our lawyers are your compass in the storm.

Is lack of education or low IQ a defense for incompetency?

Generally, a defendant’s lack of education or low IQ isn’t enough for them to be found incompetent.
Defendants are required to be able to make decisions, but they don’t have to make intelligent decisions to be deemed competent.

Defendants also don’t need to have a complete understanding of all of the legal nuances of their case like a lawyer. A dependable competency defense lawyer will keep their clients informed throughout a case.

Are you incompetent to stand trial if you don’t speak English?

No, not speaking fluent English isn’t a basis for competence to stand trial.

What options do Texas judges have when a defendant is ruled incompetent?

Texas Code of Criminal Procedure gives judges three options if a defendant is found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
The judge can order the defendant:

  • Committed to a state hospital or an inpatient or residential care facility;
  • Out on bail with conditions; or
  • Into an outpatient commitment.

The Texas legal system aims to help defendants found incompetent by directing them to the appropriate treatment for their mental health condition.
This does not mean, however, that the person will not be confined or restricted to some extent. Your competency defense lawyer will advise on the conditions of each potential option.

Some defendants are sentenced to a jail-based competency restoration program and
depending on the severity of the defendant’s charges, they may be ordered to participate in an outpatient competency rehabilitation or treatment program.

Most of the time, judges use the first option because outpatient resources are scarce.
This void has created a critical shortage of available space at state hospitals for court-ordered competency restoration and has instigated interest in updating the state’s outpatient options.

competency trial

A skilled competency Defense Lawyer can help if you’re facing criminal charges while dealing with a mental health issue.

How is competency to stand trial determined in Texas?

In Texas, the law acknowledges that not everyone is in the proper mental state to stand trial.
There is a legal procedure that is followed when a defense attorney raises the issue of incompetency to the court.

During these proceedings, the court will determine if the claims of incompetency are valid by verifying any evidence in the case using their own experts, including mental health professionals such as a psychiatrist, to perform an evaluation.

The court will make sure the claim is not being used as an excuse to avoid criminal punishment.

What does Texas require for an individual to be declared competent to stand trial?

Texas law has two requirements that individuals must meet to be deemed competent to stand trial for a criminal offense:

  • Sufficient present ability to consult with their attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding
  • A rational AND factual understanding of the proceedings against them

The law concludes: “A defendant is presumed competent to stand trial and shall be found competent to stand trial unless proved incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Unless the defendant meets the minimum requirements, the court will deem them incompetent to stand trial.

What are competency restoration services in Texas?

Outpatient and Jail-based Competency Restoration services in Texas are designed for defendants with mental health disorders or co-occurring psychiatric and substance use disorders. These defendants are found incompetent to stand trial and court-ordered to participate in competency restoration treatment. Depending on the circumstances of your case, your competency defense lawyer might seek such an outcome.

Outpatient Competency Restoration: Community-based competency restoration services, including mental health and substance use treatment services and legal education for people, found incompetent to stand trial.

Texas Health and Human Services say the outpatient competency restoration programs are designed to:
Reduce the number of defendants found incompetent to stand trial with mental illness or co-occurring psychiatric and substance use disorders on the state mental health hospital clearinghouse waiting list for inpatient competency restoration services.

Increase prompt access to clinically appropriate outpatient competency restoration services for people determined to be incompetent to stand trial who don’t require the restrictiveness of a hospital setting.
Reduce the number of bed days in state mental health hospitals used by forensic patients from a contractor’s local service area.

Jail-based Competency Restoration: This program provides mental health or co-occurring psychiatric and substance use disorder services for those incarcerated. Services include behavioral health treatment and competency education for defendants found incompetent to stand trial, consistent with other competency restoration services.

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Need a Competency Defense Lawyer? Call Varghese Summersett.

Everyone deserves a fair trial, especially those whose actions or decisions have been impacted by mental health issues.

If you are facing criminal charges and have a history of mental health problems or believe your actions were caused, in part, because of mental health issues, it’s essential to contact an experienced competency defense lawyer.

A skilled defense attorney will work with the court to properly explain your situation.
The team at Varghese Summersett includes Board Certified criminal defense attorneys and former prosecutors with decades of unmatched success defending their clients.

For a free consultation, call us 817-203-2220.

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