In some Florida criminal cases, the defendant may choose to plead guilty for various reasons. Prior to permitting a defendant to enter a guilty plea, however, the court must determine if the defendant is competent to proceed. When the court fails to validly confirm a defendant’s competence the defendant may be permitted to withdraw his or her plea and it may result in a reversal of a conviction. This was illustrated in a recent Florida Appellate court case in which the defendant entered a guilty plea for an attempted second-degree murder charge without a competency hearing. If you are charged with a violent crime in St. Petersburg it is essential to retain a knowledgeable St. Petersburg violent crime defense attorney who will fight to protect your rights.
Facts Regarding the Hearing and Plea
Reportedly, the defendant was charged with attempted second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Prior to the entry of the defendant’s plea, his attorney moved for an order to appoint mental health experts to determine if the defendant was competent to proceed to trial. The defendant was examined by two mental health experts; one found the defendant to be competent, while the other found the defendant to be incompetent. The court questioned the defendant, who indicated he had mental health issues in the past. The court did not, however, review the reports of the mental health experts. The defendant subsequently pleaded nolo contendre to the charges and was sentenced. Following his sentencing, the defendant appealed, arguing the trial court erred in failing to conduct a competency hearing or enter a competency order.
Right to a Competency Hearing
The Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure require a trial court to enter a written order indicating a defendant is competent to proceed. Additionally, the court must make an independent determination as to whether the defendant is competent, and cannot rely on a stipulation from the parties as to the defendant’s competency. As the trial court in the subject case did not make any independent determination as to the defendant’s competency or enter an order deeming the defendant competent, the appellate court relinquished jurisdiction to the trial court to conduct a competency hearing. The court noted that the defendant was required to be present during the hearing.