One of the principles underlying criminal prosecution is that the defendant must be mentally competent to stand trial. Therefore, the determination of competency can be a threshold issue before proceeding with a criminal prosecution. A Florida appeals court, in a recent decision, further clarified that mental competency is a due process right, ruling that once the issue of competency is raised, the defendant must undergo an exam or evaluation before the right can be waived.In Sheheane v. State, the State brought the defendant before a court in connection with three alleged Florida probation violations. During the proceedings, the defendant’s counsel raised the issue of the defendant’s mental competency. The trial court ruled that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the defendant might be incompetent to proceed. The court set a date for a competency hearing, but it never occurred. The defendant later, at an unrelated hearing, entered a plea for the probation violations. The defendant waived his right to competency evaluations, and the written plea indicated that the defendant believed that he was competent. As a result of the plea, the defendant was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for the probation violations.
Under Florida law, mental competency evaluations arise out of due process rights. This procedural due process right is aimed at protecting the accused from standing trial if they are incompetent. Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.210(b) provides, in part, that if any party to the proceeding has reasonable grounds to believe that the accused is not mentally competent to proceed, the court is required to promptly hold a mental competency hearing, and it may order the defendant to be examined by up to three experts before the date of such a hearing.
The appellate court first distinguished between the concept of waiver and the concept as applied in the incompetency context. The court ruled that once reasonable grounds exist to question the defendant’s competency, the defendant cannot waive the right to a competency evaluation. The court pointed out the contradiction in the State’s position. The defendant cannot simultaneously knowingly waive his right to have the court determine his capacity and also have reasonable grounds to believe that he was incompetent. The trial court was ordered to comply with the court’s written opinion and required that the defendant undergo the mental examination in order to determine whether the defendant was competent to proceed.