Incompetence and Insanity: Two Very Different Things under the Law

5 May 2015
 Categories: Law, Blog


There are some crimes that can make almost anyone shake his or her head and say, "That person must be crazy!" And then, greatly to everyone's surprise, the court determines that the individual who committed the crime is competent to stand trial. The reason for the confusion is that legal competency and legal sanity are two different things. This is what you should know.

A Mental Disorder Doesn't Equal Mental Incompetence

Mental competence is determined only by whether or not the defendant in a criminal trial can understand the charges against him or her and the consequences of a conviction. For example, a person suffering from delusions and schizophrenia may still understand that he or she is charged with a crime, standing in a court of law, and facing a virtual lifetime in prison. As long as that's the case, he or she is still competent to stand trial.

Mental Incompetence Is Not a Defense

Another significant difference between incompetence and insanity is that incompetence is not a legal defense, but insanity is. Because competency is not a defense, the issue of competency can be raised by the prosecution, the judge, and the defense. The issue of insanity, however, can only be raised by the defense.

Mental Incompetence Usually Merely Delays Proceedings

If someone is found "incompetent to stand trial" it does not necessarily mean that he or she will never stand trial for his or her crimes, which is what many people think. There are rare occasions where mental incompetence may be permanent. For example, someone who is suffering from advanced dementia may never be competent enough to stand trial, no matter what medications he or she is given.

Usually, however, a finding of mental incompetence in a criminal trial is a temporary situation that only delays the trial. 

For example, if a schizophrenic isn't able to understand the court proceedings, cannot assist in his or her own defense, and doesn't even recognize the defense attorney, he or she may be found incompetent to stand trial. The judge may order the prisoner back to jail or to a secure psychiatric facility for treatment, depending on the availability of treatment at each and the circumstances of the case.

While back at the jail or in the psychiatric facility, the prisoner usually begins medication designed to control the schizophrenia. Once the medication begins to work, there will be a new hearing to once again determine competency. Assuming that the prisoner is now able to understand that he or she is in court, charged with a crime, and able to assist his or her attorney with a defense, a trial date would be set.

Then, and only then, could the issue of whether or not the accused was legally insane at the time of the crime be raised a possible defense.

If you're involved in a court proceeding where the defendant suffers from a mental disorder it's important to understand the difference between legal incompetence and legal insanity, and realize that they are two very different things under the law. For more information, talk to an attorney like Jeffrey D. Larson, Attorney at Law.