Competency Considerations in Florida Sex Crime Cases

Florida sex crime cases often come with questions about the mental stability and capacity of the person being charged. That’s why judges are regularly asked to determine whether a person charged with a sex crime is competent to stand trial. As the state’s Second District Court of Appeal recently explained, there are certain requirements for judges considering competency. They include holding a hearing and issuing a written order. If a judge doesn’t meet these requirements, a person convicted of a crime may have grounds for an appeal.A defendant was charged with sexual battery on a person less than 12 years old. Prior to his trial on the charge, his lawyer convinced the judge to appoint a panel of experts to determine his mental competency to stand trial. He was eventually evaluated by a psychiatrist and a psychologist, both of whom concluded that he was competent to go before the court on the sex crime charge. The judge held a very brief competency hearing after receiving the reports. He referenced the reports and set the case for trial. The defendant, through his lawyer, later negotiated a plea deal, as a result of which he pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of lewd or lascivious conduct.

The defendant later appealed his conviction, however. He argued that the trial judge should not have accepted his guilty plea without first holding a more extensive competency hearing. The Second District agreed.

“Once a trial court has reasonable grounds to believe that a criminal defendant is not competent to proceed, it has no choice but to conduct a competency hearing,” the court explained. “The trial court must make an independent legal determination regarding whether the defendant is competent, after considering the expert testimony or reports and other relevant factors.”

Although a judge can rely on examination by experts to determine competency, the court said he or she has to issue a written order explaining the judge’s findings if the person is deemed competent to proceed. In this case, there was no record of any such order. “The trial court erred in failing to make an independent competency finding and in failing to enter a written order of competency,” the Second District concluded.

Despite the finding, the court said it would not immediately scrap the defendant’s conviction. Instead, it ordered that the record be held open for two months to give the trial judge time to conduct a new competency hearing.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a sex crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer. St. Petersburg sex crime attorney Will Hanlon is a seasoned lawyer who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses. Call our offices at (727) 897-5413 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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