Posted: March 13, 2015

Trial Court Erred by Not Ordering Competency Hearing

On March 2, 2015, the Second Circuit issued a decision in United States v. Houston, 13-3594-CR, holding that the EDNY erred by not ordering a competency hearing for a criminal defendant.

In Houston, the defendant was sent to a federal medical center for a psychiatric evaluation, which concluded that he was competent to stand trial. However, the defendant’s counsel subsequently raised again the issue of the defendant’s competence, telling the court that he was unable “to aid in his own defense” explaining that the defendant “had engaged in a 30, 35-minute rant,” which counsel described as “almost babbling.” For those reasons, the defendant’s counsel asked that the court order a second competency hearing. The court denied the request because the defendant refused to waive his speedy trial right.

The Second Circuit reversed, explaining:

[A]lthough the district court had already concluded that Houston was competent to stand trial, [its] prior finding [that Houston was competent] did not relieve the district court of its continuing obligation to ensure Houston’s competency. A trial court must always be alert to circumstances suggesting a change that would render the accused unable to meet the standards of competence to stand trial. This is particularly true here where the district court did not make its prior competency determination based on a full competency hearing, but instead relied solely on the written report of the psychiatrists who examined Houston at Federal Medical Center Butner. Because this report was never subjected to critical scrutiny at a competency hearing, it deserves less weight than it might otherwise be entitled to in deciding whether there was new reason to doubt Houston’s competency.

Finally, we place significant weight on the expressed views of [Houston’s counsel] that Houston did not have a full grasp on reality. The opinion of a defendant’s attorney as to his ability to understand the nature of the proceedings and to cooperate in the preparation of his
defense, is indeed significant and probative. [The defendant’s counsel’s] views are particularly probative here because they so closely paralleled the very similar concerns previously expressed by Leonard Lato, Houston’s first appointed attorney.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

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