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What is a Competency or Competency to Stand Trial Evaluation?
Court-ordered competency evaluations are mental health evaluations to determine a defendant’s memory and comprehension of the allegations against them, the alleged offense, and their capacity to follow court proceedings and support a defense attorney.1
Typically, a psychiatrist or psychologist with specialized forensic evaluation training performs the exams. The state-run mental health facilities will usually conduct these court ordered services. However, counties also work with private psychiatrists from mental health evaluation centers in Tennessee to reduce wait times.
Competency evaluations are important because the court cannot continue without running the risk of violating the defendant’s constitutional rights if the defendant does not comprehend the accusations or proceedings in their case. If the defendant, for instance, felt that his attorney was trying to harm him, a fair trial would be compromised. As a result, a verdict or sentence could be contested and overturned on appeal.
Insurance may be able to help cover the cost of therapy or psychological evaluations. Find out if your insurance provider can help with the costs by filling in our confidential insurance verification form below.
What to Expect During a Competency Evaluation
There are several acceptable approaches for performance of competency to stand trial evaluations including standardized methods such as Georgia Competency Test. Competency to stand trial evaluations can be ordered by the defense, the prosecution, or the courts. The party ordering evaluation should expect the evaluator to address the pertinent issues in accordance with: Dusky v. U.S., 362 U.S. 402, 80 S.Ct.788 (1960); Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 95 S.Ct. 896 (1975); and Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 113 S.Ct. 2680 (1993), and the statutory requirements in a given jurisdiction. Competencies to waive constitutional rights, i.e. competency to plead guilty or competency to waive the right to counsel are not offered as separate evaluations, but are addressed in the context of competency to stand trial report. The reports address the following areas in sufficient detail:
- Pertinent background information of the defendant.
- Pertinent psychiatric, medical and substance abuse history.
- Thorough Mental Status Exam and current level of functioning.
- Evaluation of the defendant’s ability to understand the proceedings against him.
- Statements of the defendant that demonstrate the extent of his understanding of relevant issues are provided in quotations. This part of the report would provide answers as to whether the defendant has the ability to: understand his present charges, understand his overall legal situation, understand the roles of courtroom personnel, distinguish between various pleas, and understand the range of possible verdicts.
- Assessment of the defendant’s ability to assist in his defense. This part of the evaluation should reflect on defendant’s ability to: recount his behavior and whereabouts at the time of the alleged offense, effectively interact with his attorney, and behave in acceptable manner in the court room.
- Whether or not, and to what extent the defendant’s mental disorder (if any) has affected his competency to stand trial. The absence of mental disorder usually precludes further evaluation.
In cases when the defendant is assessed by the evaluator as incompetent to stand trial the issues of malingering (feigning the signs and symptoms of mental disorder) and potential for restoration to competency will be discussed.
A qualified psychologist reviews a defendant’s medical and criminal history to look for behavioral patterns or previous mental illness. Competency to stand trial assessment is essentially a clinical evaluation. A competency evaluation comprises a detailed clinical interview and a review of medical records, as is the case with other psychiatric assessments. Some of the information essential to the competency examination but not typically included in psychiatric exams are police reports, medical documents in jail, prior competency evaluations, and information provided by the attorney.2
The psychologist or psychiatrist will inquire about the patient’s recollection of what happened, their knowledge of the allegations, and their comprehension of the justice system, the roles of their attorney, the court, and other parties.
To prepare for a competency evaluation, you must reduce your stress levels and cooperate. Much of the information obtained is out of your control. Still, your memory and knowledge of the events in question are in your control. Be honest and thorough in your responses. It may be helpful to write your recollection of the events on paper before the evaluation.
After completing the mental competency evaluation, the mental health professional submits a report about the person’s competency. If they are found incompetent to stand trial, a defendant may be committed to state hospitalization until they are rehabilitated. After the person regains competency, the proceedings will continue.
Example Evaluation Questions & Activities
In addition to a description of your behavior, appearance, mood, quality of communication, and other factors, an evaluator will ask questions, including but not limited to the following:3
- Identifying information such as name, age, and date of birth
- Do you have an understanding of the charges against you? What are they?
- What specifically is alleged that you’ve done to warrant these charges?
- NGI-defense – what does it mean?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of each party in a formal trial hearing, including the judge, jury, defense attorney, prosecutor or district attorney, and witnesses?
- What is your understanding of the proceedings inside a courtroom?
- Are you currently taking any medications?
- Compared to other defendants represented by public defenders, how much do you believe you can rely on your lawyer?4
- Do you have any concerns regarding how your lawyer will approach the case, and if so, how will you address them?
- Do you realize that you must maintain your composure to respect the court’s processes?
- Imagine a witness against you lying in front of the jury. How would you respond?
Who Pays for a Court Ordered Competency Evaluation?
The court typically covers the costs of the designated experts and the court-ordered competency evaluation since they’re for the benefit or use of the court in assessing whether the defendant is mentally competent.
How Long Does a Competency Assessment Take?
A sit-down interview could last anywhere from two to six hours, depending on the number of records and how talkative and willing the person being evaluated is.
Are Court-Ordered Competency Evaluations Confidential?
In Tennessee, a competency evaluation is not confidential. The evaluation professional must inform the defendant of this and ensure that the defendant understands.5
- Walker, Mark. “How Court-ordered Competency Evaluations Work.” Argus Leader, 14 Nov. 2015, eu.argusleader.com/story/news/2015/11/14/how-court-ordered-competency-evaluations-work/75493920.
- Wall, Barry, and Ruby Lee. “Assessing Competency to Stand Trial.” Psychiatric Times, 29 Oct. 2020, www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/assessing-competency-to-stand-trial.
- “Competence to Stand Trail Report Writing Guidelines Checklist – UMASS Medical School.” UMass Chan Medical School, 28 May 2014, www.umassmed.edu/forensictraining/reports/competency-evaluation-report-writing-guidelines.
- Hoge, Steven K. “Competence to stand trial: An overview.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 58,Suppl 2 (2016): S187-S190. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.196830
- “TENNESSEE DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE SERVICES: FORENSIC EVALUATION TRAINING MANUAL.” TN.gov, July 2015, www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/mentalhealth/documents/Forensic_Evaluator_Manual_Revised_July_2015.pdf.
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