Written by attorney Lawrence Lazzara Jr.

Arizona Rule 11 Mental Competency Laws

Under Rule 11, a defendant has the right to a mental examination and hearing when reasonable grounds for an examination exist. “Reasonable grounds exist when ‘there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the defendant is not able to understand the nature of the proceeding against him and to assist in his defense.’" The superior court’s decision whether reasonable grounds exist for an examination and hearing will not be reversed “absent a manifest abuse of discretion."

The sole purpose of Rule 11 et seq. is to determine whether a defendant has sufficient mental ability to allow the adversary system to operate properly; this is based on society's decision that the adversary system best promotes the interests of justice, as fundamental fairness requires that a defendant be armed with some minimal awareness of reality before the power of the state is exerted against him. The legislative intent of Rule 11 is to insure that a defendant in a criminal action in this state shall not be tried and punished if he is unable to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense; the fact that a complaint rather than an information brings the defendant before the court should not alter this right.

A person shall not be tried, convicted, sentenced or punished for a public offense, except for proceedings pursuant to A.R.S. § 36-3707(D), while, as a result of a mental illness, defect, or disability, the person is unable to understand the proceedings against him or her or to assist in his or her own defense. Mental illness, defect or disability means a psychiatric or neurological disorder that is evidenced by behavioral or emotional symptoms, including congenital mental conditions, conditions resulting from injury or disease and developmental disabilities as defined in A.R.S. § 36-551. The presence of a mental illness, defect or disability alone is not grounds for finding a defendant incompetent to stand trial.

Rule 11.1 contains the definition of incompetency in Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-1621 (A) (Supp. 1972) which is identical with that adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court for the federal courts. A defendant suffering from a delusion such that he could not trust or confide in his counsel would be incompetent by this standard, since he is unable to "assist in his own defense."

Note: a party’s competence may fluctuate between competent and incompetent.

An accused has the right to a mental examination and hearing to determine his competence where reasonable grounds exist to support the examination and hearing. The defendant, prosecution and the court all have a duty to see that a defendant who is not competent is not tried. The "failure to observe procedures adequate to protect a defendant's right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent . . . deprives him of his due process right to a fair trial."

The motion to have the defendant's mental condition examined cannot be made until the information is filed or indictment returned. The purpose is to prevent a defendant from being committed before there has been a finding of probable cause to justify holding him for trial. This rule also eliminates the need to postpone proceedings in the justice court in order to petition the superior court for a competency determination.

The court may order that a preliminary examination be conducted pursuant to A.R.S. § 13-4503C to assist the court in determining if reasonable grounds exist to order further examination of the defendant.

Examinations into competency focus on an extremely narrow issue: whether whatever is afflicting the defendant has so affected his present capacity that he is unable to appreciate the nature of the proceedings or to assist his counsel in conducting his defense.

Due process requires the judge to raise the issue and hold the hearing sua sponte if it appears to the judge at any time that competency is in doubt. A competency hearing may be held for the purpose of determining whether the defendant is mentally able to stand trial, as well as to determine whether he is competent to conduct his own defense.The failure to conduct a competency hearing deprives the defendant of his right to a fair trial, unless the reviewing court can say that there was before the trial court no substantial evidence casting doubt upon his competency at any time before he was sentenced.

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