When a criminal defendant is declared mentally incompetent, it is not the same thing as an insanity defense. When a defendant pleads a defense of insanity, they are asking a jury to render a verdict that attributes liability to their mental condition. When a defendant is declared incompetent, they never see a jury, and can have their trials delayed until they become competent.
A person who has been declared mentally incompetent does not escape liability, nor trial, but merely suffers a delay in being processed through the justice system. Usually, a person deemed mentally incompetent will be required to check in with the court, or their custodian will be required to check in, every few weeks or months. Also they'll need to notify the court when the individual regains competency. Once competency is regained, the individual will have to stand trial.
What Does Incompetent to Stand Trial Mean?
A criminal defendant can be deemed incompetent to stand trial if:
- They are unable to understand what they are being charged with, and
- They are not capable to assist their attorney in their own defense, such as by being unable to understand questions asked or provide relevant info, and
- A psychiatric evaluation determines that a mental health condition exists causing the incompetency
If all three of the above are met, a criminal defendant can be removed from a standard jail and moved into a mental health facility to receive treatment. When a defendant regains competency, they will then have to stand trial. While controversial, in some limited circumstances, mentally incompetent defendants can even be medicated to cure the incompetency.
How Long Can a Person Be Held?
Under federal law, which applies to federal charges in federal court, a person can be held for four months if the court finds that it is reasonable. However, state laws vary and recent news stories show that in many places, defendants declared incompetent can often be held for years.
Most recently, a Florida man charged with killing his young daughter and facing the death penalty was deemed no longer incompetent, after being declared such over two years ago. Generally, in cases where the crimes are significant, such as with this Florida man, the length of time that a court will find reasonable will be longer.