Constitutional Protections for Criminal Defendants: Competency to Stand Trial

In the United States, we have constitutional protections and guarantees that are applicable and fundamental to the practice of civil and criminal law. These constitutional guarantees are important in civil law, but these protections can be the difference between life and death when applied in the criminal justice system. These constitutional protections are in place to ensure that citizens of the United States are not held without due process of the law, are able to be judged by their peers in a fair and impartial jury, have access to an attorney regardless of whether the persons are indigent or not, and finally, that the criminal justice consequences and penalties are not cruel or unusual and are in proportion to the offense committed. It is important to speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can guide you through the constitutional protections that you are guaranteed and how they apply to your case. Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.

Constitutional Safeguards for Criminal Defendants

In our criminal justice system, there are many Constitutional safeguards by which to ensure that a criminal defendant is not put through the criminal process without either intelligent help or when he or she is not in a position to advocate for him or herself. At the end of the day, though an attorney must always be present for a criminal defendant, if so desired, the criminal defendant must also be a part of his/her criminal strategy process, by being of sound mind to appreciate what is happening and the possible consequences of not winning the trial.

Competency to Stand Trial

One constitutional protection is the competency rule. At the start of the trial, once effective assistance, in the form of an attorney, has been provided for the defendant, the defendant must be competent to stand trial. It is presumed at the start of any criminal proceeding that a defendant is mentally competent. However, a defendant may be found incompetent if he or she is unable to consult with an attorney with at least a rational or factual understanding of the proceedings that are about to occur. Additionally, a defendant’s capacity may be questioned if the defendant is unable to:

  • Understand or appreciate any of the charges that have been brought against the defendant;
  • Understand or appreciate the penalties that may be incurred if the jury or judge finds that the defendant is guilty of all elements and all counts of the offenses charged;
  • Understand that the criminal proceedings are adversarial, with the government an opponent to the criminal defendant;
  • Reveal facts that are pertinent to the case and his or her defense to the attorney;
  • Testify coherently, in the event that this is the agreed-upon defense strategy; and
  • Act in a manner that is appropriate for a courtroom.
  • This evaluation may be made at the start of the criminal proceeding or may occur at any time during the criminal proceeding where a criminal defendant becomes unable to participate meaningfully with his or her defense and strategically with an attorney.

    Silence and Disengagement as a Form of Incompetency?

    Recently, there has been an interesting case that has made many wonder about the parameters of competency. According to the Sun-Sentinel, a man that was charged with heroin dealing has not spoken since he was arrested five months prior. He has not spoken to his defense attorney, to the court in any of his eight court hearings, has not answered to simple questions like, “How are you today?” among other attempts to get him to speak. He has been sent for multiple health evaluations to determine whether he is legally competent to stand trial, but none of the evaluations have suggested he does not understand. The man, who many have testified that he has spoken before his arrest, is assumed to either be incompetent as a result of the trauma of being arrested or attempting to act incompetent as a legal strategy so that he will not have to go through the criminal proceedings. However, this makes for an interesting case study since he refuses to engage with anyone, not even his defense attorney, he is not actively participating in his own advocacy, and there may be legal issues that may arise in appeals if the criminal proceedings continue without his involvement.

    Please contact West Palm Beach criminal defense attorney William Wallshein for a confidential consultation.