Roth's Criminal Justice Mental Competency Bill Clears Key Senate Hurdle

March 28, 2023

SB 349 Passes 5-0 In Senate Public Safety

SACRAMENTO—Legislation by Senator Richard D. Roth (D-Riverside), SB 349, clarifying the law surrounding a defendant’s ability to declare mental competency, consistent with a Court of Appeal ruling, cleared the State Senate’s Public Safety Committee today by a vote of 5-0.

“This legislation will reduce lengthy court backlogs which result in delayed justice, which is unacceptable.” said Senator Roth. “This bill is a simple fix which ensures that defendants are treated fairly while enabling the criminal justice system to work more efficiently.  I thank the Senate Public Safety Committee for their action today.”

“Our appellate courts have rightly held that if defendants are competent in one case, they are competent in all cases pending against them,” said Riverside District Attorney Michael A. Hestrin. “SB 349, a bill authored by Senator Roth and sponsored by our Office, adopts this common-sense principle into our state statutes. SB 349 will further the cause of justice by reducing unnecessary strain on limited judicial resources and ensure that cases are brought to trial in a timely manner. Thank you to Senator Roth for introducing this important piece of legislation.”

SB 349 clarifies that a certificate of restoration of mental competence for a defendant shall apply to any pending case against a criminal defendant at the time the defendant was restored to competence.

This simple clarification adopts the Avila decision, by the California Court of Appeal, which expressly rejected the assertion that a defendant may be competent in two cases and incompetent in a third.

Currently, when there is a doubt as to the competence of a defendant, it can take several weeks to get doctors’ reports as to the defendant’s competence to stand trial. If a physician’s report determines the defendant is incompetent, they are then ordered to a state hospital for restoration to stand trial, an individual can then end up waiting up to eight months in county jail for placement in a state hospital for restoration.

Situations such as that in Avila are becoming more common, such as when a defendant is charged in multiple cases and different attorneys are retained and/or appointed to handle each case. Attorneys may disagree on whether their client is competent to stand trial, leading one to initiate competency proceedings in their case while the other does not, and seeks to move forward to trial.

In some situations, a defendant is initially deemed incompetent to stand trial, is charged in a new case, their attorney does not declare a “doubt” in that new matter, and the defendant is later restored to competence in the first case. The defense will then declare a “doubt” in the new case and argue that no showing of a substantial change in circumstance is necessary because no competency proceedings have ever been held in that case.

Redundant evaluations and litigation then ensue, resulting in case backlog. Thus, by having the certificate of restoration apply to all pending cases, this bill will reduce unnecessary litigation, conserve judicial and mental health resources – which are limited across the state, and could potentially reduce the backlog of approximately 1,800 Incompetent to Stand Trial (IST) defendants awaiting restoration at a state hospital.

Senator Roth amended SB 349 in today’s Committee hearing to address concerns that this bill “does not consider that a person who is competent in one case may not be competent in another”. Roth’s amendments state that upon a declaration of a doubt, that doubt shall be presumed to exist in all cases pending against that defendant, therefore ensuring that all pending cases are considered in the restoration process.

The amendments also create a presumption that is rebuttable by a preponderance of the evidence, recognizing that there may be circumstances where a defendant’s competence changes dramatically, affecting their ability to stand trial.  The amendment also clarifies that the court retains jurisdiction of all cases pending against the defendant within the county after a declaration of doubt for the purpose of determining his or her competence.


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