The Amanda Bynes case is an example of the difficulty in proving mental incompetence to stand trial under California criminal law. As recently reported in the Amanda Bynes DUI case, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge in the Mental Health Court found Ms. Bynes competent to stand trial after her criminal defense lawyer had her criminal proceedings suspended when he declared a doubt as to Amanda Bynes’ competency pursuant to California Penal Code section 1368. It is not surprising the Ms. Bynes was found competent to stand trial in her DUI case as it can be difficult in California including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino County to have a criminal proceeding suspended due to mental incompetence.
The Initial Hurdle Under Penal Code section 1368
One an experience criminal defense attorney commences the representation of a person charged with a criminal offense, they must declare a doubt as to their client’s competency if it becomes apparent through speaking with and corresponding with the client that the client cannot assist their attorney in their defense and they do no understand the nature of the charges and/or proceeding that they are facing in a criminal prosecution. Specifically, “a defendant is incompetent to stand trial if he or she lacks a “ ‘sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and … a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him.’ ” Dusky v. United States (1964) 362 U.S. 402, 402 ; see also Godinez v. Moran (1993) 509 U.S. 389, 399–400 California Penal Code § 1367; People v. Stewart (2004) 33 Cal.4th 425, 513 [15 Cal. Rptr. 3d 656, 93 P.3d 271]
Indeed, once a doubt has arisen as to the competence of the defendant to stand trial, the trial court has no jurisdiction to proceed with the case against the defendant without first determining his competence in a California Penal Code section 1368 hearing, and the matter cannot be waived by defendant or his counsel. It is crucial to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to handle a criminal case with issues of mental incompetency since the finding of incompetency by a Court can lead to a more successful resolution of otherwise serious criminal charges.
Burden of Proving Incompetency at California Penal Code section 1368 Hearing
The burden of proof at a competency trial falls on the party trying to prove incompetence, in most cases the Defendant in a criminal proceeding.
(People v. Medina (1990) 51 Cal.3d 870.) Incompetency is established by a preponderance of the evidence. (California Penal Code section 1369(f))
Penal Code section 1367(a) provides in pertinent part that:
“A person cannot be tried or adjudged to punishment while that person is mentally incompetent. A defendant is mentally incompetent … if, as a result of mental disorder or developmental disability, the defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner.” (Emphasis added.)
Further, CALCRIM 3451 provides in pertinent part:
“The defendant is mentally competent to stand trial [or adjudged to punishment] if he  can do all of the following:
1. Understand the nature and purpose of the criminal proceeding against him ;
2. Assist, in a rational manner, his  attorney in presenting his  defense;
3. Understand his  own status and condition in the criminal proceedings.
The law presumes that a defendant is mentally competent. In order to overcome this presumption, the defendant  must prove that it is more likely than not that the defendant is now mentally incompetent because of a mental disorder [or]/ developmental disability.”
In many cases, a competency trial can come down to the battle of the experts regarding a defendant’s mental state. As explained by the California Court of Appeal in People v. Conrad (1982) 132 Cal.App.3d 361, 370-372, a Defendant is incompetent and cannot be sentenced where multiple experts agree that the Defendant is psychotic and would thereby be unable to cooperate with counsel. Along with experts, often times an experienced criminal defense lawyer will call lay witnesses including family members, school officials and at times co-workers to testify about a person’s mental state in a competency hearing.
What Happens if a Criminal Defendant is Found Incompetent
If a Defendant with the help of his criminal defense attorney, is found incompetent to stand trial, the can be sent to a hospital in lieu of prison when it comes to cases involving felony charges. A defendant who, as a result of a mental disorder, is adjudged not competent to stand trial or adjudged to punishment on a felony charge may be committed to a state hospital for three years or the maximum term of imprisonment provided by law for the most serious offense charged in the information,whichever is shorter. See Pen. Code, §§ 1367, subd. (b), 1370, subds. (a), (c); People v. Karriker (2007) 149 Cal.App.4th 763, 780.
Thus if a criminal defendant is facing more than three years in state prison, a capable criminal defense attorney may be able to avoid prison altogether if the defendant is found to be mentally incompetent. In People v. Karriker, supra, the court explained that “Penal Code section 1370 explicitly contemplates that some defendants charged with felonies will be released if they are not restored to competency within the allowable time period.” (People v. Karriker, supra, 149 Cal.App.4th at p. 788; see Pen. Code § 1370, subd. (e).)
California Penal Code section 1370 clearly contemplates that criminal charges against a defendant not restored to competence will be dismissed in the furtherance of justice under Penal Code section 1385. (See Pen. Code § 1370, subd. (d).) In turn, a finding of mental incompetence may lead to the eventual dismissal of criminal charges. However, if a criminal defendant is found competent at some point during their hospitalization, a court has the discretion to commence criminal proceedings and defendant may face a criminal trial if the matter is not resolved by plea negotiations with the Court or District Attorney.
Issues regarding mental incompetency in California criminal cases can be very complicated but there are many avenues an experienced criminal attorney can explore to successfully defend a person dealing with issues of mental incompetence related to mental disorders and developmental disabilities. It is imperative that a person charged with any crime seek the counsel of a competent criminal defense lawyer to explore all avenues of a defense including mental incompetence.