Mental Health in the Courtroom

Mental health is fast becoming one of the most pervasive issues in our society today. It
seems you cannot turn on the television without hearing about an issue involving mental health.
From mass shootings to sexual misconduct or assault, it seems as though society is facing
many more criminal issues due to mental health. But what happens to criminals with a history
of mental health problems when it comes time to prosecute them in a court of law? Is it fair to
hold someone who is mentally ill to the same standard as one who was fully aware of his actions
and in his right mind?
The standard of law that is used by the courts to determine if someone is able to stand
trial is called “competency.” South Dakota law defines “mentally incapable to proceed”, or competency,
the condition of a person who is suffering from a mental disease, developmental
disability, as defined in § 27B-1-18, or psychological, physiological, or etiological
(deficits in attention, motor control or function) condition rendering him mentally
incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences
of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.
SDCL 23A-10A-1 (definition added).
The laws in South Dakota regarding competency and procedure changed significantly in March
of 2017, when the legislature passed House Bill No. 1183 “to provide and revise certain provisions
regarding mental health procedures in cordial justice.” The law updated many provisions
of the South Dakota Criminal Code to secure the rights of those with mental health issues. For
instance, in order to determine if a defendant is competent to stand trial a court “must” order an
evaluation by a mental health expert within twenty-one days. Prior to the law change, a person
might have spent weeks or even months in jail before a seeing a court appointed expert to make
a competency evaluation. The law further defines the types of medical professionals who are
capable of performing a competency evaluation. Only licensed psychiatrists, licensed clinical
psychologists, social workers and nurse practitioners, who are specially certified, may conduct
evaluations. During an evaluation a court appointed or private mental health professional will
ask the defendant about the charges against him, look at his past records, and ask whether he
understands the role of the lawyer, judge and others. The goal of the evaluation is to prove
whether the person is able to understand the charges against him and assist in his defense. If a
person is incapable of either of these things, trying them would violate their constitutional rights
to fair trial and could lead to an appeal. Once the report is completed, a hearing is held and a
judge will rule as to the competency of the defendant.
If the evaluator does not feel that a defendant is competent to stand trial, typically a
commitment is ordered and the defendant is provided treatment in order to “restore
competency.” The United States Supreme Court ruled in a 1972 case called Jackson v. Indiana,
that a defendant committed solely on the basis of incompetency “cannot be held more than the
reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability the
he will attain that capacity in the near future.” This became important due to the fact that many
mental disorders might never be able to be rehabilitated. In South Dakota, this commitment can
last up to four months so as “to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the
foreseeable future he will attain the capacity to permit the trial to proceed.” SDCL 23A-10A-4.
The treatment may include counseling or drug therapy or some combination of both. If a defendant
cannot be found competent within the four month period the director of the facility where
the defendant is committed must advise the Court whether there is a substantial probability that
the defendant will be competent to proceed within the next year. If so, the defendant is committed
for up to one year. If not, the defendant can be committed for the duration of the maximum
sentence of incarceration for the most serious offense charged.
The primary objective of the criminal justice system is to protect the safety of the community.
However, it is also of Constitutional importance to protect the rights of those charged
with crimes. Balancing those responsibilities can be difficult. As always, if you have been
charged with a crime or need expert legal representation, the lawyers at Wilka and Welter have
the knowledge and skills to ensure your rights are protected.

Posted in Wilka, Welter & Ash LLP Law Blog.