Competency Evaluations

Trueblood v. Washington State Dept. of Soc. and Health Services, 822 F.3d 1037 (9th Cir. 2016)

The Ninth Circuit finds that 7-day deadline for competence to stand trial evaluations is not constitutionally required and, therefore, the lower court’s permanent injunction required modification.

Background: In Washington, if a judge, defense attorney, or prosecutor raises a doubt about a criminal defendant’s competency, the court must order an evaluation. If the defendant is found incompetent, the court may order restorative services, dismiss the case, or refer the defendant for civil commitment. Washington law, as of July 2015, set a target deadline of 7 days or less for the state to complete a competency evaluation, with the option to extend the deadline to 14 days for clinical reasons and several defenses for failing to meet the deadline. Cassie Trueblood brought a Section 1983 claim on behalf of a plaintiff who was found legally incompetent to stand trial and detained in solitary confinement awaiting transfer to a hospital and the class of past and future detainees. Trueblood claimed that the current waiting times in jail for competency evaluations were so long that they were “beyond any constitutional boundary.” The district court granted Trueblood’s motion for summary judgment, stating that any waiting period beyond 7 days is suspect of infringing the detainee’s liberty interest in freedom from incarceration. The court also ordered a permanent injunction because it found that the state “‘had a long history of failing to adequately protect the constitutional rights’ of the class and had ‘demonstrated a consistent pattern of intentionally disregarding court orders.’” The state appealed only the part of the injunction that required a competency evaluation within 7 days, or longer upon a court-ordered extension for “clinical good cause.”

Holding: According to previous Supreme Court decisions, the length of the commitment must have a reasonable relation to the purpose of the commitment and the interests of the detainee and state must be weighed in light of constitutionally acceptable timeframes. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the circumstances of pretrial detainees and their confinement. When the constitutionality of competency evaluation deadlines is challenged, a court must weigh the interests of the detainees and the state and benchmark those interests against what is constitutionally reasonable, not simply decide whether the deadlines are reasonable and achievable. The Ninth Circuit found that the lower court made no such analysis and erroneously based its findings on what was reasonable and achievable. The Ninth Circuit held that, for this reason, the lower court erred in upholding the 7 day deadline and, thus, that part of the permanent injunction was vacated and the case was remanded to the lower court. The Ninth Circuit charged the lower court with modifying the permanent injunction while “taking into account the balancing of interests related specifically to initial competency evaluations.”

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 2