Under the Ohio Revised Code, the terms “competent” and “competency” refer to a court’s determination about the ability of a minor child (under age 18) to understand the nature and objectives of a proceeding against the child and to assist in his or her own defense. If a court does not find a minor to be incompetent, then the minor is “competent.”
Ohio law says that a minor is incompetent if, “due to mental illness, intellectual disability, or developmental disability, or otherwise due to a lack of mental capacity, the child is presently incapable of understanding the nature and objective of proceedings against the child, or of assisting in the child’s defense.”
Assuming there is a reasonable basis to ask the court for a competency determination, any party, including the court on its own, can ask for an evaluation of the minor’s competency, with minimal exceptions based on the particular circumstances or charges of a case. Of course, there must be some validity to the request; asking for a competency determination should not be used as a delay tactic.
Q: What does it mean to be “competent to stand for trial?”
A: According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a defendant in a criminal proceeding is competent to stand trial if the person has a rational understanding of the proceedings and can rationally assist in his or her own defense. In general, this means that defendants must understand the charges they face and the consequences of proceeding with a trial. They must: 1) be able to make rational decisions and 2) be able to assist with their own defense, either by communicating with an attorney or by representing themselves. The state is not allowed to prosecute any defendant who cannot do both of those things.
Ohio courts have held that the right not to be tried while incompetent is as fundamental in juvenile proceedings as in adult criminal trials.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made several rulings applying the constitutional principle of due process to juvenile defendants. The Supreme Court has also held that it would violate due process to prosecute anyone who could not understand what was happening. Since then, every state has recognized a juvenile’s right to be competent before proceeding with a juvenile adjudication.
Q: What happens if a minor is found incompetent?
A: Ohio law gives a court two options. First, a court can send the minor to a professional or a clinic to help the minor attain competency through a combination of education and counseling services. There is, however, a time limit on how long a minor can participate in such services. For minors who may never attain competency, the court must dismiss their charges. The court can, however, refer such minors or their families to services that can help keep the minor from misbehaving again in a way that would threaten the community.
Q: Will a minor be automatically found incompetent just because he or she is too young or immature to handle a proceeding in juvenile court?
A: No. The key to determining competency is whether the minor is capable of understanding the proceedings and assisting in his or her own defense. Naturally, a very young child, or a very immature child or a severely disabled child is more likely than other children to be found incompetent. But Ohio’s law makes it clear that competency must be based on something more than just a child’s age, personality or disability.
Q: If a court determines that a juvenile is incompetent, does that mean the juvenile is not guilty by reason of insanity?
A: No. An insanity defense refers to the state of mind of defendants at the time that they allegedly did something illegal. Insanity is a separate legal concept from competence. “Competency” does not refer to the defendant’s state of mind during the commission of an illegal act, but rather to his or her state of mind at the moment a hearing or trial begins.
There are, of course, exceptions to these general rules, and Ohio’s courts review each case on its own merits. As such, it is important that if you or your child faces legal action, you should consult with a qualified lawyer who can offer legal advice to determine your best course of action.
This “Law You Can Use” legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by Lewis Center attorney Doug Althauser of Doug Althauser Law LLC, and was updated by Seneca Konturas, a criminal defense and juvenile law attorney practicing in northeast Ohio.