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Penal Code § 1368 PC – Mental Competency for Trial in California

By Spodek Law Group | February 12, 2023

The Sixth Amendment: Protecting the Right to a Fair Trial

The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution is a vital cornerstone of our justice system. It guarantees every citizen the right to a fair trial, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to legal counsel. But what happens when a defendant is not mentally competent enough to understand the charges against them? In California, Penal Code 1368 PC provides a legal process by which judges can suspend criminal proceedings against a defendant if their mental competency is questioned.

When Mental Competency is Questioned

If a doubt arises in the judge’s mind about the mental competence of the defendant, PC 1368 allows the judge to suspend the proceedings. At this point, the judge will state the doubt on the record and ask the defendant’s lawyer for their opinion. If requested by the defense lawyer, the court can recess proceedings until they form an opinion about the defendant’s mental competence at that point in time.

Simply put, a defendant cannot be tried or convicted of a crime if they do not understand what is happening in court or cannot reasonably participate in their defense. Every person accused of a crime in California must understand the nature of the proceedings and be able to assist their criminal lawyer in defending the case.

Understanding Incompetency to Stand Trial

Incompetency to stand trial is different from an insanity defense. If a defendant is permanently incompetent, the court can take action to ensure they are competent to stand trial. If a defendant is only temporarily incompetent, they could be tried once they are again competent. Competency to stand trial is determined by a special hearing before a judge or a jury if requested.

A court-appointed psychiatrist will typically examine defendants, and the defense attorney will be allowed to present evidence. Penal Code 1382 is the statute that ensures a defendant’s speedy trial rights, which is crucial to the protection of their constitutional rights.


A fair trial is one of the most fundamental aspects of our justice system. Every person accused of a crime deserves the right to a fair trial, regardless of their mental capacity. With Penal Code 1368 PC and the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney, defendants can receive the assistance they need to ensure their constitutional rights are protected.

The Suspension of Criminal Proceedings: An Overview of PC 1368

When a judge in a criminal trial suspects that the defendant may be unable to comprehend the proceedings due to mental incompetence, they must act according to the provisions of PC 1368. In such a scenario, the proceedings must be suspended until the defendant’s mental competency can be determined.

Steps Involved in the Process

Here’s how the process typically unfolds:

  1. The judge expresses their doubts about the defendant’s mental competency in the official court record.
  2. The defense attorney is asked to provide their opinion on the defendant’s competency.
  3. If the defense attorney presents substantial evidence of mental incompetence, the judge orders a mental health evaluation of the defendant, which usually takes place over 72 hours at a state mental hospital.
  4. The court then holds a hearing to determine the defendant’s mental competency to stand trial. The defense counsel bears the burden of proof to show that the defendant is not competent.
  5. If the court finds the defendant to be mentally incompetent, the proceedings are suspended until they become competent. But, if they are found to be competent, the trial resumes.

Criteria for Determining Mental Competency

A defendant is considered mentally competent to stand trial if they meet the following criteria:

  • They understand the nature and purpose of the proceedings against them.
  • They can reasonably assist their attorney in their defense.
  • They comprehend their status and place in the proceedings.

A defendant’s mental competency may come into question in two situations:

  1. When they first appear in court and enter a plea, the judge may question their competency if there are indications that they do not understand the charges or are unable to assist in their defense.
  2. If they plead not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the court will order a mental health evaluation to determine whether they were insane at the time of the crime. If they are found to be insane, they will be deemed incompetent to stand trial, and proceedings will be suspended. But if they are found to be sane, they will be considered competent to stand trial.

Competency vs. Insanity: Understanding the Difference

It’s crucial to differentiate between mental competency and legal insanity, as they are distinct concepts. A defendant may be found incompetent to stand trial but not legally insane at the time of the crime, and vice versa. Mental competency implies that the defendant is not mentally capable of participating in their defense at present, while legal insanity means that the defendant was not in control of their actions when the crime was committed and cannot be held criminally responsible.

The Importance of a Competency Hearing

In Los Angeles County, competency hearings are conducted by the Mental Health Courthouse. A competency hearing is a civil action, not a criminal proceeding, and is conducted before a judge or a jury. The court must appoint at least one psychiatrist or psychologist to examine the defendant and determine their competency to stand trial.

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