When Is Someone Incompetent to Stand Trial?

When Is Someone Incompetent to Stand Trial?

To stand trial in a criminal case, a defendant must be capable of understanding the charges against them. In other words, the individual needs to be in their right mind before they can face prosecution.

This is known as “competence.” When a defendant’s mental state restricts the person from understanding or comprehending the charges in their case, the court deems them incompetent to stand trial.

When the court determines an individual is incompetent to stand trial, the law dictates that the individual can’t be convicted. This is because everyone is entitled to a fair trial under the law. If a person doesn’t have the requisite mental capacity to understand why they’re being prosecuted, the trial is inherently unfair, and the case can’t proceed.

Generally, it’s quite rare for a court to determine that someone is incompetent to stand trial. The court also has the authority to order a defendant to undergo psychological testing by a professional to determine if they’re truly incompetent.

What Does It Mean to Be Competent?

Every criminal defendant has a legal right to fully comprehend why they have been charged with a crime and what kind of case has been brought against them. Additionally, they have a right to defend themselves, as well as the right to have a Dallas criminal lawyer help them in preparing a defense.

If a person is incapable of understanding the charges they’re facing, the individual will not stand trial, regardless of how overwhelming the evidence is against them. It doesn’t matter if the person confessed to committing the crime, or if the prosecutor has undeniable evidence that proves the person’s guilt — if the defendant doesn’t have the mental capacity to stand trial, the court can’t proceed with the case.

On the other hand, just because someone is deemed incompetent, doesn’t mean they get to leave jail and carry on with their normal life. When the court rules that a person is incompetent, the case is momentarily put on hold, but the individual remains in custody.

It’s possible that the person will never become competent to stand trial. However, if the person is deemed competent at some point in the future, they can then stand trial for those charges once their competence has been restored.

Incompetence Is Not a Defense in a Criminal Case

A common source of confusion is whether competency is a defense in a criminal case. In fact, competency is not a defense, as it describes a person’s state of mind during their case, not while he or she was committing a crime.

For example, a person facing criminal charges in Dallas may raise an insanity defense, claiming he or she didn’t possess a normal mental state when he or she carried out the crime. However, this defense only applies to the defendant’s mental state at the time the crime occurred. When a jury or judge considers the person’s mental state in this context, they can only look at the defendant’s mental state surrounding the commission of the crime.

This is different from the defendant’s mental state at the time of trial. At the same time, it’s possible for someone to be mentally ill when carrying out a crime and still be mentally ill at the time of their trial. The first mental state involves an insanity defense, whereas the second mental state goes to a question of competence.

It’s also possible for someone to have a mental illness and still be competent to stand trial. For example, an individual’s mental illness might be manageable with medication. In this type of situation, the court might ask a mental health or medical professional to assess whether medication would restore the defendant’s competence. If medication and proper treatment can make the defendant mentally competent to stand trial, the court may order the defendant to comply with medical treatment.

How Does the Court Assess Competency?

When a defendant’s competence is in question, it’s usually an issue that comes up relatively early in the case. Once the court is aware that competence could be a factor, it has the power to require the defendant to submit to a psychological evaluation.

The competence assessment is typically performed by a psychiatrist, psychologist or other appropriate mental health professional. The mental health professional sits down with the defendant and may ask them a range of questions.

These questions are designed to help the mental health professional determine if the individual understands the charges and potential consequences. The defendant should also be capable of understanding who their lawyer is and what role their lawyer has in their case. A typical competence evaluation will last anywhere from two hours up to several hours in duration.

In addition to the psychological evaluation, courts may also consider several factors, including whether the defendant appears capable of making decisions about their case, whether the defendant is able to communicate with their criminal defense lawyer, whether the defendant is able to grasp the seriousness of their case, and whether the defendant seems capable of taking in information.

If you or a loved one have been charged with a state or federal crime, speak with an experienced Dallas criminal defense lawyer. Criminal Defense Lawyers Clint Broden and Mick Mickelsen have decades of combined experience in Texas criminal defense and are also regarded as two highly skilled federal criminal defense lawyers in Dallas. Call (214) 720-9552 and speak with the Broden & Mickelsen, LLP in Dallas today.

Dallas Best Criminal Defense Lawyers
Broden & Mickelsen, LLP
(T): 214-720-9552


Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case.


  1. https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/faculty_scholarship/1747/
  2. https://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2015/11/14/how-court-ordered-competency-evaluations-work/75493920/

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.