California Supreme Court Rules Court Has Discretion Whether to Permit Competent Defendant to Represent Self

People v. Johnson, 2012 Cal. LEXIS 600 (January 30, 2012)

Following the United States Supreme Court decision in Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 64 (2008), the California Supreme Court has ruled that trial courts may deny the right to represent themselves to defendants who fall into a “gray area” between those who are competent to stand trial and those who are competent to conduct their own trial. In so ruling, the Court found that California law has never afforded defendants the right to represent themselves, but only permits self-representation in noncapital cases in the judge’s discretion. In capital cases, the law specifically requires defendants to be represented by counsel at all stages of the proceedings. The legislative history states that pro se litigants cause unnecessary delays at trial and generally disrupt the proceedings. The history further provides that the burden on the justice system is not outweighed by any benefits to defendants who generally gain nothing by representing themselves.

Prior to Edwards, and because California courts are required to follow federal constitutional law, they afforded criminal defendants the right to represent themselves in spite of the state law based upon the United States Supreme Court decision in Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 (1975), holding that defendants have a Sixth Amendment Constitutional right to selfrepresentation. California courts further presumed that a defendant’s right to self-representation was absolute based upon Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993). That case held that a defendant found competent to stand trial was allowed to waive counsel and plead guilty, rejecting the argument that federal law required a higher standard of competence for waiving counsel or pleading guilty than to stand trial. In 2008, the United States Supreme Court held in Edwards that a trial court could insist that a defendant proceed with counsel even though the court had found him competent to stand trial.

In this case, Johnson was charged with two separate assaults, one an early-morning brutal sexual assault on a bar tender and later the same day, hitting the patron of a sandwich shop with a metal chair rendering him unconscious. A single judge presided over all the proceedings. The defendant was originally represented by counsel but early on requested to represent himself, which request was granted. During pre-trial proceedings, the defendant conducted himself in an unusual manner and the nature and content of letters he filed with the court and others cast doubt on his competence. The judge thereupon appointed counsel to represent the defendant in competency proceedings and ultimately appointed three mental health experts to evaluate him. The defendant refused to be interviewed by any of the experts who then testified that they were unable to state with certainty whether he was competent or not. His behavior in court and jail, and his bizarre filings led one expert to proffer a diagnosis of delusional disorder with conspiracy paranoia and to strongly suspect incompetency. Based upon all of the evidence, the jury found the defendant competent to stand trial. The trial judge, however, found the defendant incompetent to represent himself and appointed counsel for him.

The California Supreme Court held that competency to stand trial was a matter to be decided by a jury, but competency to represent oneself was a decision within the sound discretion of the trial judge. The Court stated that although courts should be cautious about making competency decisions without the benefit of expert evidence, the judge’s own observations of the defendant’s behavior supported a common sense finding of incompetence. Here the court was able to observe the defendant’s behavior in representing himself over several months; the defendant had already refused mental health evaluations on competency to stand trial; and the judge placed on the record examples of his disorganized thinking, deficits in sustaining attention and concentration, impaired expressive abilities, anxiety and other common symptoms of severe mental illness. The Court found the trial court had the discretion to determine the defendant lacked the competency to represent himself and the judge had not abused his discretion in this case.

Although urged to do so by the parties and amicus curiae, the California Supreme Court, like the United States Supreme Court in Edwards, declined to set out a standard for determining competency to represent oneself, but decided that trial courts should simply determine whether the defendant suffers from a severe mental illness to the point where he or she cannot carry out the basic tasks needed to present the defense without the help of counsel. The decision in this case is similar to the Washington Supreme Court decision in In Re Rhome, 260 P.3d 874 (Wash. 2011) and reported in the last issue of Developments in Mental Health Law.

Found in DMHL Volume 31 Issue 2