Q: What does it mean to be “competent to stand for trial?”
A: According to a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Dusky v. United States), 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 that they face and the consequences of proceeding with a trial, and they must be able to make rational decisions in their own defense, either by communicating with an attorney or by representing themselves. If a defendant cannot do both of those things, then the state is not allowed to prosecute them.
Q: Does this ruling apply to juveniles?
A: Yes. The U.S. Supreme Court never said that competency was only for adults. During the 1960s, the Court made several rulings that applied certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution to children. The Court said that state prosecutors had to apply the constitutional principle of “due process” to juvenile defendants. The Court also decided 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: Does this ruling apply in Ohio, too?
A: Yes. In the 1980s, defense attorneys who represented juveniles in Ohio began to ask judges to determine if some of their clients were competent. In response, many of Ohio’s appeals courts ruled that the right not to be tried while incompetent is as fundamental in juvenile proceedings as in adult criminal trials. This past summer, Ohio’s legislature passed a law that defined juvenile competency.
Q: What does Ohio law say about juvenile competency?
A: Ohio law says, “A child 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.”
Q: Will a juvenile be automatically found incompetent just because he or she is too young or immature to handle a juvenile proceeding?
A: No. The key to determining competency is whether the juvenile 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. Furthermore, Ohio law prohibits juveniles from raising an insanity defense. “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.
Q: So, what happens to a juvenile who is found incompetent?
A: Ohio law gives a court two options. First, a court can send the juvenile to a professional or to a clinic in order to help the juvenile attain competency through a combination of education and counseling services. There is, however, a time-limit on how long a juvenile can participate in such services. For juveniles who may never attain competency, the court must dismiss their charges. The court can, however, refer such juveniles or their families to services that can help keep the juvenile from misbehaving again in a way that would threaten the community.
Q: If my son or daughter gets in trouble, can I ask the judge to determine their competency?
A: Yes, but there must be some validity to your request. You are not allowed to raise the competency issue just to delay proceedings. If you believe a juvenile is incompetent, either you or the juvenile can ask the judge to order an evaluation, or you can ask the juvenile’s attorney to do so.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). This article was prepared by Lewis Center attorney Doug Althauser of Doug Althauser Law LLC.