Mental Competency in Florida: What it Takes in Order for an Accused Person to be Forced to Stand Trial

By now, most people are familiar with the “Florida man” meme and Florida man’s exploits, which are often criminal in nature. Sometimes, these events are actually more tragic than funny, arising as the results of severe (and often untreated) addiction and/or mental illness.

If a person commits a criminal act while suffering from a mental issue, he may not be competent to stand trial or may be not guilty of any crime due to his mental state. If you need to present arguments and evidence about your mental state in your criminal matter, be sure you have an experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense attorney by your side handling your case.

This backdrop brings us to news reports about J.D. from Bay County. In May 2014, J.D. believed that his neighbor stole his dog. Reportedly, J.D. confronted the woman with a shotgun. First, he threatened to blow the woman’s kneecaps off. Then he threatened to kill her. A male member of the household came outside, and J.D. shot him. That man subdued J.D. with a hammer and police came and arrested J.D.

The state charged J.D. with attempted first-degree murder, aggravated assault and other crimes. An expert performed a mental competency evaluation and the trial judge concluded that J.D. was not fit to stand trial.

In a competency evaluation and in a competency hearing, the objective is to determine if the accused has the mental ability to understand the charges (and potential punishments) he’s facing and to consult with his attorney and participate rationally in his defense.

After J.D. was declared mentally unable to stand trial, he was involuntarily committed to the Florida State Hospital. Two years later, a hospital psychologist decided that J.D. no longer met the standards for involuntary commitment. The trial court issued an order declaring J.D. fit to stand trial. J.D. was tried in the summer of 2017, found guilty and given a life sentence.

The presumption regarding an accused’s continued incompetence

This process had a major problem, however, which unfairly infringed upon the accused man’s rights. Under Florida law, once you’re found incompetent to stand trial, the law presumes that you remain incompetent until a court holds a proper competency hearing and, at the conclusion of that hearing, finds you competent. To qualify as a “proper” competency hearing, a hearing generally must involve the testimony of court-appointed expert witnesses, a “determination of competence to proceed, and the entry of an order finding competence.”

The only hearing that J.D. received was a June 2017 status hearing where the judge set a date for the pretrial conference. The record of that hearing contained a note from a deputy clerk stating that J.D. was “competent to proceed.” That information was insufficient, according to the appeals court, to indicate that the trial judge made an independent decision that J.D. was mentally fit for trial.

This required that J.D.’s case go back before the trial court. If he was not competent at the time of his 2017 trial, then he is entitled to a reversal of his convictions and sentence, and a new trial.

Violent crime cases can present specific challenges and complexities. With those challenges, though, often come added opportunities to assert your rights and obtain a favorable outcome. To give yourself the best chances of that favorable outcome, reach out to the skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten, P.A. Our attorneys have been providing clients with high-quality and effective criminal defense representation for many years. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation.

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