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Competency Evaluation

Competency Evaluation


What is a Competency Evaluation (Law)?

Competency evaluation (law) is applied in several different areas of law.  The law is most commonly applied in two different situations

·         when a person defends their right to make decisions about medical care they receive

·         when a defendant goes through an evaluation before sentencing to determine their level of mental capacity and any possible mental illnesses

Competency Evaluation (Law) in Determining Defendant’s Mental Capacity

It’s an all too familiar defense strategy.  The defendant’s attorney files a motion to determine their client’s mental capacity to receive a lesser or more favorable sentence.  But the law is in place for good reason, even if the crimes were extreme.  For example, the defendant for the Aurora movie theatre shootings will likely undergo a competency evaluation during trial. 

The main law concerning a defendant’s mental competency is found under 18 U.S.C. §4241. 

Subdivision (a) states the following: “At any time after the commencement of a prosecution for an offense and prior to the sentencing of the defendant, or at any time after the commencement of probation or supervised release and prior to the completion of the sentence, the defendant or the attorney for the Government may file a motion for a hearing to determine the mental competency of the defendant.”   The subdivision goes on to state that the court may grant the motion if there is reasonable evidence of a mental disease or defect. 

The court has the power to order a psychiatric or psychological examination before the trial as well.  If there is evidence of a mental disease or defect, the Attorney General then has the power to hospitalize the defendant up to four months if the defendant can recover in that amount of time and proceedings can continue.  However, subdivision (d) also states that the defendant can be hospitalized for a longer amount of time if there is evidence that the mental defect will be treated or “the pending charges against him are disposed of according to law; whichever is earlier.”

Competency Evaluation (Law) for a Person to Make Decisions about Medical Care

According to the National Institutes of Health, mental competency is “based on an individual’s awareness of the nature of the present situation, factual understanding of the issues at hand and ability to manipulate information rationally to reach a decision.” 

So, if a person wants to make decisions about medical care, competency evaluation (law) indicates that the person must clarify such decisions while in a healthy mental state.

The Terri Schiavo case was a monumental example of competency evaluation (law) reaching into the medical field.  Schiavo was in a vegetable state, but she never has any written details of her wishes for medical care when she was healthy and mentally competent.  Thus, there was a huge legal battle over who had rights to the care she received when she was no longer mentally competent. 

Sources: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2729043