Competency Issues in Florida Sex Crime Cases

Florida criminal cases involving a defendant with mental and emotional conditions can raise a number of complicated legal issues. The state’s First District Court of Appeal made clear in a recent sex crime case that there are certain circumstances in which a judge is required to hold a hearing to determine whether a person is competent to stand trial and to issue a written decision on that question before proceeding to trial.Defendant was charged with sexual battery of a person under twelve years of age and lewd or lascivious molestation of a person under twelve years of age, stemming from an undisclosed incident. Before trial on those charges, Defendant’s lawyer asked the judge to first determine whether Defendant was sufficiently competent to stand trial.

One court-appointed expert concluded that Defendant wasn’t able to adequately understand the charges against him, but a second court-appointed expert said Defendant was competent to participate in the case. After a competency hearing, the trial court found that Defendant was sufficiently competent to proceed to trial. The judge made that decision orally, but didn’t issue a written ruling on the competency issue.

The case was eventually transferred to a new judge, who ordered a third court-appointed expert to evaluate Defendant. This time, the expert “filed a written report with the court suggesting a finding of competency, but there is no indication in the record that the court conducted a competency hearing or ruled on [Defendant]’s competency after the report was filed,” according to the First District. The case proceeded to trial, where Defendant was convicted on both charges and sentenced to life in prison.

Reversing the decision on appeal, the First District said the second trial judge failed to hold a hearing on the competency issue and didn’t issue a written decision finding that Defendant was competent to stand trial. The court explained that a trial judge is required to do both of those things once he or she has reasonable grounds to question a defendant’s competency.

“Here, the trial court’s error was two-fold as it allowed [Defendant]’s trial to proceed without conducting a competency hearing in light of the third expert’s evaluation and without independently determining [Defendant]’s competency,” the court said. As a result, the court sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to retroactively determine whether Defendant was competent at the time of the trial. It said the court should order a new trial—after a new competency hearing­—if it’s not able to determine Defendant’s competence retroactively.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. Clearwater sex crime attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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