Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Crazy on Condition

State v. M.W., 2012 VT 66.

Today’s case involves the criminal statute governing how a trial court orders a psychiatric evaluation of a defendant for competency to stand trial.

Here is the long version of how it works: the statute allows the trial court to consider the issue if the defense, the state, or the court believes the defendant lacks the mental capacity to stand trial for the alleged crime.  Once such a motion is made, the trial court is required by the statute to order an immediate initial screening by a mental health expert. 

Based on this impromptu exam and the facts and circumstances available to the trial court, it may determine whether a full examination is warranted.  The trial court is also to determine the least restrictive environment to conduct examination with the provision that the trial court shall not order an examination to take place in a mental health facility, unless the preliminary examination determines that the defendant needs treatment.

Let’s try to simplify this.  Basically, the statute says if someone during an initial hearing notices that defendant seems crazy, catatonic, or otherwise non-cognizant of what is going on, she can make a motion to have defendant checked out upstairs.  Following this motion, the court brings a mental health screener who makes an initial review and reports back her early impressions.  Based on this report and other facts, the trial court has to make a judgment call—should there be a full blown psychiatric exam, and if so, where should it take place?  The only limitation is that the screener must find the defendant in need of treatment for the trial court to be able to order the examination to take place on an in-patient basis at a mental health facility. 

Simple, no?

Here is where the problems arose.  Defendant was arrested for numerous violations, including trespassing.  At his arraignment, questions about his competency became obvious, and upon motion, the trial court ordered a preliminary screening.  The screener stated that Defendant was impaired, but the screener noted that Defendant was not eligible for treatment because he was suffering from dementia, a medical condition, and not from a mental illness. 

At a hearing, the screener reaffirmed this decision.  The State requested that, notwithstanding the screener’s statement, the trial court order defendant to a psychiatric hospital for a full evaluation.  The trial court was stymied about what to do.  But in clever two-step maneuver, the trial court ordered no evaluation.  It then set bail and conditions of release. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Defendant could not make bail and remained in jail.  Subsequently, the trial court held a competency hearing where the defense produced an expert who had conducted a full examination and who testified that Defendant was incompetent.  The trial court agreed, found Defendant was a person in need of treatment, and ordered Defendant to the state hospital. 

On appeal, the State tries to revive its initial issue concerning the evaluation and request to send Defendant to state hospital.  The State argues to the extent that the statute limits the ability of the trial court to refer a Defendant to a psychiatric hospital for an examination, the legislature has unconstitutionally removed an inherent power from the court. 

Such is the stuff that great constitutional challenges are made.  But the State’s arguments run aground on the issue of ripeness—the basic doctrine that requires controversies to be real and not merely academic or advisory exercises—and the challenge is never fully made. 

The problem with the State’s argument is that the trial court never ruled on the issue that it seeks to appeal.  It never ordered the examination; so it never reached the question of where the examination should be conducted.  Instead, it sidestepped the question and left it unresolved.  When legal issues are not reached or raised, the SCOV takes a dim view of any attempt to rig them into an appeal.  So here with this issue that never truly ripened into an actual decision.

As a result, the SCOV denies the appeal for lack of ripeness.  The State tries to argue that this issue is likely to be repeated when Defendant re-enters the system, but the SCOV is dismissive.  It similar rejects the State’s attempt to characterize the issue as one of subject matter jurisdiction.  The SCOV simply won’t engage on the speculative facts of the case. 

So the issue remains essentially undecided, but there are some clues.  Given the rejection by the SCOV, it is likely that it found the State’s concerns to be less than compelling and perhaps a bit overstated.  There is enough wiggle room in the statute that leaves the trial court free to reject a screener’s determination if the circumstances suggest something different.  What also seems clear is that the SCOV believes, implicitly, that the statute does not directly interfere with the trial court’s inherent power but gives it some structure.  So unless another set of factual circumstances forces a trial court to shed its power, the message appears to be that as long as the trial court is conscientious of its inherent authority, it will not have trouble applying the examination protocol in a meaningful and constitutionally sound manner.

Such relativistic guidance might drive the State a little crazy itself.

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