Competence to enter into plea agreement

District court abused its discretion in not sua sponte ordering competency evaluation based upon medical evidence of incompetence introduced for the defendant’s sentencing hearing

U.S. v. Wingo, 2015 WL 3698157 (11th Cir. 2015)

Andrew Wingo was a defendant in a complex securities fraud case, and was represented by counsel. Wingo made only brief appearances before the court, and ultimately entered into a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to just one of the numerous charges against him. Some evidence of Wingo’s health concerns came to light during early proceedings (e.g., bond revocation hearing), but neither his attorney nor the government raised any concerns about Wingo’s competence at the plea hearing. The issue of Wingo’s mental capacity was not raised until the sentencing phase approximately six months later, when Wingo’s attorney requested a reduced sentence based upon diagnoses of dementia and other cognitive impairments. The pre-sentence report from the government also noted Wingo’s cognitive impairments. The court at sentencing noted the medical information submitted regarding Wingo’s condition, but determined that this should not affect the length of sentence. Wingo appealed, arguing that the court had both a statutory and a constitutional duty to order a competency hearing sua sponte because there was reasonable cause to doubt his competence.

The Eleventh Circuit noted that in a prior case (Tiller v. Esposito, 911 F.2d 575, 576 (1990)) it had identified three factors to be considered in determining whether information establishes a “bona fide doubt regarding the defendant's competence.” After a detailed review of the evidence submitted prior to the sentencing hearing, the Eleventh Circuit found that the evidence was sufficient to create “reasonable cause to believe that Wingo was incompetent to proceed to trial or to plead guilty.” It found that the district court had abused its discretion in failing to sua sponte order a competency hearing, and remanded the case to the district court to determine “whether Wingo's competency can be evaluated nunc pro tunc, and if so, for an assessment of his competency at the time of his guilty plea and sentencing.” The Eleventh Circuit stated that if such evaluation were to find Wingo was incompetent at the time of the plea agreement, or if such evaluation is not possible, Wingo's conviction and sentence must be vacated, with the government having the right to try him if he becomes competent. If the evaluation were to find Wingo was competent, his conviction and sentence must be affirmed.

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2