April 7, 2022

What Determines Legal Competence in a Criminal Trial?

A man going over some notes about determining competence in a criminal trial.

Going through a criminal trial is always distressing for the defendant and their family. Especially if met with obstacles that prolong or complicate the trial, delaying justice. 

One of those obstacles can be determining if the defendant is legally competent to stand trial. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s best to have the best defense attorney at your side. They know what determines legal competence and how to navigate the process.

However, as the defendant, it’s in your best interest to have a full grasp of the trial and be prepared in advance. Hence, understanding what determines legal competence and knowing how this can impact the outcome of the trial is of paramount importance.

What is Legal Competence vs. Incompetence?

In the eyes of criminal law, legal competence means that the defendant in a trial has the mental capacity to fully comprehend the case laid against them and partake in the defense actively. 

Legal Dictionary gives the following legal definition of competence: 

Sufficiently mentally able to stand trial, if he/she understands the proceedings and can rationally deal with his/her lawyer. 

While it is often people with mental illness or disability at the time of the trial who are determined legally incompetent, this isn’t the rule. Even a mentally sane person can be found legally incompetent or a mentally ill person can be found competent.

Being legally incompetent means that they don’t have a rational understanding of the proceedings and can’t aid their attorney with the defense. And even in cases when literally all evidence directly points at the defendant, the trial must not start or continue until they are found legally competent again.

However, legal incompetence isn’t to be confused with insanity, which means the defendant wasn’t in their right state of mind when the crime occurred.

What Does it Mean to be Found Legally Competent?

According to the U.S. Constitution, every person has the right to a fair trial. And in order for the trial to be fair, the defendant must be legally competent. But what does that mean?

In short, being found legally competent means you are fully capable to comprehend the legal 

proceedings against you and consult with your lawyer in regard to your defense.

Who Determines Legal Competence?

Legal competence in the State of Nevada is determined by the court that has jurisdiction over the criminal case against the defendant. Usually, depending on the severity of the criminal case, the court appoints one or two psychologists or psychiatrists or a person qualified to examine the defendant and determine legal (in)competence.

After the medical professionals have been appointed, the court holds a hearing where both sides, the prosecution and defense, can question them and provide supporting evidence. Once all the evidence has been reviewed and the witnesses cross-examined, the court can decide whether the defendant is competent or incompetent to stand the trial

What Determines Legal Competence in a Criminal Trial?

What determines legal competence in a criminal trial varies from state to state, as there are different criteria. But in the State of Nevada, legal competence in a criminal trial is determined if and when the defendant:

  • Understands the criminal charges against them
  • Understands the nature and purpose of the court proceedings 
  • Helps their lawyer form and lay out the defense

It’s important to note that the intellectual capacity or education level of the defendant don’t play a role. In the same manner, the defendant isn’t expected to understand the legal jargon or nuances as the attorney would. Also, being a foreigner or not speaking English fluently isn’t a valid reason to be found legally incompetent.

The Pros and Cons of Being Found Legally Competent in a Criminal Trial

At first glance, you may think that being found legally incompetent in a criminal trial isn’t the worst and you’ll be getting a free pass. However, bear in mind that if found legally incompetent the court can order for you to be placed in a mental institution or take medications — even against your will — until your mental state improves and you are able to stand trial.

On the other hand, if you’re found legally competent in a criminal trial you’ll be able to defend yourself and help your attorney with evidence and witnesses to prove your innocence. Actively participating in your defense can be crucial to avoid a sentence altogether or to serve the minimum. 

Moreover, when being found legally competent, the trial can start and continue in the predicted timeline without any delays. But if found incompetent, it can take months or even years to proceed with the trial after you’re found competent again — and that’s a significant amount of time of your life.

Defend Yourself With an Aggressive Henderson Defense Attorney

If any criminal charges have been brought up against you in Henderson, Nevada, you deserve the right to a fair trial and exemplary defense to prove your innocence. So to make sure your legal competence doesn’t obstruct the trial hire defense attorney John Marchiano who has 35 years of experience practicing criminal law.