Pennsylvania Trial Judges Can Now Dismiss Charges Against Permanently Incompetent Defendants
By: Chalon C. Young
Takeaway: A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision gives trial judges the ability to dismiss charges against mentally ill defendants who will never be found competent to stand trial.
In 2009, 16-year-old Jquan Humphrey shot and wounded two people. Plagued by severe mental illness, he was found incompetent to stand trial and remained imprisoned, mentally deteriorating, until February of 2022 when a Court of Common Pleas judge in Centre County, Pennsylvania dismissed his charges.
Prosecutors appealed the judge’s decision, but the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the dismissal of Humphrey’s charges, making it now possible for trial judges to dismiss charges against individuals accused of crimes who will never be found competent to stand trial. Prior to the decision in Humphrey’s case, the ability to dismiss pending criminal charges against an incompetent defendant rested solely – and arguably unfairly – in the hands of prosecutors. The Supreme Court’s ruling has clarified a vague and troubling area of criminal law, where defendants with mental defects, dementia, brain injuries, and other incurable conditions find themselves trapped in the legal limbo of non-restorable competency.
What is Competency?
Competency is an individual’s capacity to understand the court process and to assist in their own defense. If a person suffers from a mental defect at the time of their court proceedings and is unable to understand the offenses with which they are charged and unable to assist in their defense, court proceedings will be suspended until they are mentally fit to stand trial. Competency is a status that can – in most cases – be restored with psychiatric treatment and medication. In such cases, a defendant’s trial will be postponed indefinitely while the individual receives treatment at a state facility. Once the individual is stabilized and is able to understand the proceedings against them, their criminal case resumes.
Difficulty arises, however, when a defendant is severely mentally ill and cannot be restored to competency. When pending cases are indefinitely postponed, the mentally ill defendant can, like Humphrey, remain imprisoned indefinitely. At times, the length of psychiatric commitment is longer than the maximum sentence that could have been imposed for the alleged crime committed. This happens before trial – meaning that a person who could potentially be found not guilty at trial loses their liberty while awaiting psychiatric treatment.
Pennsylvania’s Outdated and Confusing Mental Health Law
Humphrey’s case brought to light the problems with Pennsylvania’s treatment of severely mentally ill defendants, and ultimately bestowed on trial judges the ability to save these individuals from indefinite imprisonment.
The Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976 provides that individuals who suffer from mental defects and are unable to assist in their defense cannot be forced to trial so long as they remain incompetent. The Act requires the court to determine whether, with treatment, such defendants can regain competency and again move forward with their case. However, this law is wrought with ambiguity, lacking clear instructions on how to handle defendants whose competency could not be restored. As a result, defendants such as Humphrey have languished indefinitely behind bars – not only suffering the torment of mental illness but also the deprivation of their liberty.
Effect of The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The State Supreme Court’s decision gives trial judges the authority to dismiss charges against defendants whose competency is unlikely to be restored – a power that previously rested solely with prosecutors.
This new ruling will make pre-trial proceedings more fair for people awaiting trial. Currently, the two state psychiatric facilities that provide competency restoration in Pennsylvania – Torrance and Norristown State Hospitals – do not accept individuals who are serving sentences in state prisons. Consequently, it remains to be seen, however, how it may affect mentally ill individuals who are currently serving state prison sentences and whose psychiatric health is declining.
The Court’s opinion can be read here.