Last year, in State v. RG, our Appellate Division addressed the issue of whether a criminal defendant who is not mentally competent can be involuntarily medicated to restore their competency so that they can proceed with their case. This was the first time a New Jersey appellate court addressed this issue. The case provides a valuable opportunity to review some of the basics concerning criminal defendants with mental health issues.
Every defendant is expected to participate in their own criminal case. This means that they must be able to understand that they have been charged in a criminal court with a criminal offense. Further, they must be able to recall the facts that gave rise to the case, and have the ability to discuss them in a meaningful way with their attorney. They must be able to provide defense counsel with any information they may have concerning those facts, as well as defenses to the charges. They must be able to evaluate plea offers, and to decide whether they wish to resolve their case by way of plea or proceed to trial. They must have a basic understanding of how a trial works, and their right to testify before a jury. They must also understand the respective roles of the defense attorney, the prosecutor and the Judge hearing the case. If they cannot do these things, they may be declared incompetent for purposes of proceeding with their matter.
In New Jersey, a defendant who appears to be incompetent will have to undergo a competency evaluation. These evaluations are generally conducted by a state psychologist at a public facility known as the Ann Klein Forensic Center. The psychologist will generate a report that describes the evaluation, and presents findings and conclusions. If the defendant is deemed competent, the case can proceed. If the defendant is deemed incompetent, the case will typically be adjourned until the defendant is restored to competency. As a practical matter, this means that the Judge hearing the matter will list it for a 60-90 day review and, and that time, will see where the defendant stands in terms of fitness to proceed. (Once the case has gone on long enough, and after a series of court reviews concluding that the defendant remains incompetent, defense counsel should be thinking about moving to dismiss the charges.)
In RG, the State sought to involuntarily medicate the defendant to stand trial for third degree neglect of an elderly or disabled person. The trial court denied the State’s request and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the State failed to satisfy all four prongs of the test set forth in Sell v. United States, 539, U.S. 166 (2003). There, the US Supreme Court enunciated a four-factor test that must be satisfied before a court could order involuntary medication to restore a defendant to competency to stand trial for a serious but non-violent crime. These are: (A) There must be an important governmental interest at stake; however, “special circumstances” might lessen the importance of that interest; (B) Involuntary medication is substantially likely to render the defendant competent to stand trial, and is substantially unlikely to have side effects that will interfere significantly with the defendant’s ability to assist counsel in conducting a trial defense, thereby leading to an unfair trial; (C) The State must show that medication is necessary to further those interests and that less intrusive treatments are unlikely to achieve substantially the same results; and (D) The trial court must conclude that administration of the drugs at issue is medically appropriate, i.e., in the patient’s best medical interest in light of his/her medical condition.
RG is important because it, among other things, raises significant ongoing policy issues concerning the treatment of mentally ill criminal defendants in our criminal justice system. In light of the number of criminal defendant that have some sort of mental health problem, this issue must be monitored on a continuing basis.
James S. Friedman, Esq., is a criminal defense attorney centrally located in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Mr. Friedman represents criminal defendants in all state and federal courts in New Jersey and New York City. If you have a criminal charge, contact Mr. Friedman to discuss your case, and to start planning your defense.