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11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Finds Involuntary Commitment Unconstitutional

In our criminal justice system, it is important that anyone who is to stand trial must be competent and intellectually able to understand the charges and the criminal proceedings occurring against the person. Competency is defined not only by the ability of the person to understand the proceedings and the consequence of a verdict, but it also refers to the criminal defendant’s ability to aid his/her defense attorney in his/her own defense. To be found incompetent, a criminal defendant does not have to have a permanent condition; a person may be found to be not competent to stand trial for a temporary time period and later may be found competent.

Competency to Stand Trial

The reason that the criminal justice system puts a high premium on competency is that a defendant would not otherwise get a fair proceeding if he/she was unable to participate and aid in his/her own defense. Waiting until competency is one method to ensure that the criminal proceedings are fair. However, if the person will forever be incompetent then he/she may not be subjected to punishment in prison.

In situations where a criminal defendant is found to not be competent to stand trial, judges may decide that the criminal defendant may still be a public safety risk to society and should be placed, involuntarily, in a mental institution where the person is not only unable to harm himself or others, but is also monitored and treated.

Ruling of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

A recent ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, has found that involuntary commitment of people with intellectual disabilities is a violation of their Constitutional rights for due process. The suit stemmed from the involuntarily commitment of a man with an IQ of 56 (the development level of a seven-year-old) who was charged with sexual battery. He was involuntarily committed to a residential facility in 2000. According to current Florida law, involuntary commitment for an indefinite period of time without periodic reviews is allowed. However, with the recent ruling in the 11th Circuit, an indefinite commitment without periodic reviews is unconstitutional. In other words, the person may be thrown into the facility, and the key (in so many words) is thrown away.

Periodic Reviews of Committed People Required

According to the holding of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, though a person may have development disabilities for the rest of his/her life, his/her propensity to be dangerous to the public can change. The state also has put forth that the state is required to release a person who has been involuntarily committed if the reason for the commitment is no longer present. However, without a periodic review of the person, there would be no way of ascertaining that the reason for the commitment in the first place is no longer present. When criminal defendants who are competent are able to stand trial and are sentenced, there is a relationship between the nature of the crime and the duration of the sentence. A person is set free once the sentence has been satisfied. For a person with mental impairments, however, there is no end to his/her sentence until a court order is submitted, meaning the sentence can be indefinite.

With the decision rendered by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, periodic reviews will be put into effect, with the possibility that many once-dangerous involuntarily committed people will no longer be a danger to themselves or the public, and will be able to return to their lives and receive the treatment and care that they need.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime but are not competent to stand trial, it is important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik who can advocate on your behalf and ensure that you receive a fair trial. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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