Incompetence to Stand Trial

In Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), the Supreme Court ruled that the test for determining whether a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial is "whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding -- and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." In Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966), the Supreme Court held that the state trial court violated due process by failing to invoke the statutory procedure for a hearing into the defendant’s competence to stand trial where the record raised a "bona fide" doubt about the defendant’s mental condition. The Supreme Court in Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171 (1975), noted that it has long been accepted that a "person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense may not be subjected to a trial." Importantly, the Supreme Court acknowledged in Drope that competence is not fixed. Therefore, "[e]ven when a defendant is competent at the commencement of his trial, a trial court must always be alert to circumstances suggesting a change that would render the accused unable to meet the standards of competence to stand trial." Id. at 181. The Court went on to hold that the information available to the trial court should have created sufficient doubt to halt the trial and conduct an inquiry into the defendant’s competence. Notably, in Dusky, Pate, and Drope, the Supreme Court rejected the remedy of a retrospective competency determination, finding it unlikely that an accurate assessment could be achieved.

Regarding who bears the burden of proof where competence is at issue, the Supreme Court has ruled that there is no constitutional impediment to requiring a defendant to bear the burden of proof in a competency hearing. Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437 (1992). It violates due process, however, to require a defendant to prove incompetence by clear and convincing evidence. Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996).

Click here to view a list of cases involving successful challenges to competence to stand trial, including remands for a hearing on the issue.
Click here to view a list of unsuccessful, but instructive, cases involving competency challenges. The case lists were last updated July 2009.

In Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003), the Supreme Court addressed the issue of when, if ever, it would be constitutional to forcibly medicate an incompetent defendant in order to restore competence. The Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause permits the Government to involuntarily administer antipsychotic drugs to a mentally ill defendant facing serious criminal charges in order to render that defendant competent to stand trial, but only if the treatment (1) is medically appropriate; (2) is substantially unlikely to have side effects that may undermine the fairness of the trial; and (3) taking account of less intrusive alternatives, the treatment is necessary significantly to further important governmental trial-related interests. A list of cases addressing forcible medication to restore competency to stand trial will be added soon. Cases involving forced medication to render an inmate competent to be executed are included on the page for incompetency to be executed claims.