Fourteenth Amendment - the standard of mental competency to waive constitutional rights versus the competency standard to stand trial.

AuthorBoch, Brian R.
PositionSupreme Court Review - Case Note

    In Godinez v. Moran,(1) the United States Supreme Court held that due process does not require a higher competency standard for pleading guilty or waiving the right to an attorney than the standard for competency to stand trial. The Court first concluded that the decision to plead guilty is no more difficult than the sum total of the many decisions required of a defendant who pleads not guilty during the course of a trial.(2) The Court then concluded that the decision to waive counsel requires a mental capacity no higher than that required in the decision to waive the constitutional rights that a defendant forgoes when he elects to plead guilty.(3)

    This Note argues that the Court correctly ruled that due process does not require a higher competency standard to waive constitutional rights than the competency standard to stand trial. This Note first argues that the Court properly declined to interpret earlier Supreme Court precedent, most notably Westbrook v. Arizona,(4) as compelling a defendant to show greater mental capacity to be deemed capable to waive constitutional rights than that capacity required to enable a defendant to stand trial. Second, this Note demonstrates that the Court's opinion is consistent with the advantages of, and policy justifications behind, the plea bargaining process. Third, this Note illustrates that the Court's decision is consistent with a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to self-representation, as recognized in Faretta v. California.(5) Finally, this Note examines the implications the Godinez opinion holds for future defendants' collateral challenges based on their alleged incompetency to have waived their constitutional rights.


    The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."(6) This clause guarantees "the fundamental elements of fairness in a criminal trial" to defendants in state courts.(7) This guarantee of fundamental fairness requires that a defendant, in order to be subjected to any criminal proceedings, possess a satisfactory level of mental capacity to understand and comprehend the proceedings.(8) Once the trial court is convinced that the defendant satisfies this requisite level of competency, the defendant may be put to trial. This guarantee of fundamental fairness during criminal proceedings additionally incorporates those procedural safeguards enumerated in the Bill of Rights that are "essential to a fair trial."(9) Included in these safeguards are the Fifth Amendment prohibition against compulsory self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel.(10) Nevertheless, such constitutional rights may be waived by a defendant who is mentally competent to do so.(11) Until Godinez, the Supreme Court had never resolved a split in the federal circuits as to whether due process requires a competency standard to waive such constitutional rights that is higher than the competency standard to stand trial.


      Courts have long recognized that due process "prohibits the criminal prosecution of a defendant who is not competent to stand trial."(12) Generally, due process requires that a defendant, in order to undergo legal proceedings, "have the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in the preparation of his defense."(13) Trial courts have an affirmative duty to conduct an inquiry into a defendant's mental competency when, at any point in the proceedings, any "evidence raises a bona fide doubt as to a defendant's competence to stand trial."(14) Although a defendant's state of mental competency is difficult to assess and quantify,(15) in Dusky v. United States,(16) the United States Supreme Court enunciated a legal standard governing the minimum competency required of defendants before they may be put to trial. The Dusky Court held that "the test must be whether he has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding--and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him."(17) This test has its origins in Youtsey v. United States,(18) in which the Sixth Circuit reversed a defendant's conviction because the district court never determined whether the defendant's epilepsy had rendered him "incapable of understanding the proceedings, and intelligently advising with his counsel as to his defense."(19)

      Courts and commentators have identified two main policies supporting the notion that due process prohibits the trial of incompetent defendants. First, the prohibition against the trial of incompetent defendants is "fundamental to an adversary system of justice."(20) Requiring that a criminal defendant be competent to stand trial reflects the concern for the accuracy and fairness of criminal judicial proceedings.(21) A defendant who is not of a rational and sound mind may unintentionally fail to provide important information that might tend to reveal his innocence.(22) Moreover, a mentally deficient defendant may be unable to make basic decisions throughout the proceedings, such as how to plead and whether to dismiss counsel,(23) or an incompetent defendant may conduct himself in an irrational and inappropriate manner that disturbs the proceedings.(24) Also, the traditional justifications for criminal punishment--such as retribution and specific deterrence--require that a defendant understand why he is being punished.(25) Such understanding may be lost when a defendant cannot rationally comprehend the proceedings.(26)

      Second, the prohibition against the trial of incompetent defendants is a derivative of the prohibition against trials in absentia.(27) A defendant of unsound mind, although present in body during the trial, may be absent from the trial as he is mentally incapable of presenting, comprehending, and participating in his defense.(28)


      The Fifth and Sixth Amendments guarantee several rights to a defendant during a criminal trial. Included are the prohibition of compulsory self-incrimination,(29) the right to a jury trial,(30) the right to confront one's accusers,(31) and the right to assistance of counsel.(32) But even though these rights are guaranteed to all, a defendant may waive them.

      For instance, the Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused in criminal prosecutions the right "to have the assistance of counsel for his defence."(33) This right to assistance of counsel is a fundamental right.(34) Therefore, when an indigent defendant cannot afford an attorney, the judicial system is obligated to provide that defendant with legal representation.(35) The assistance of counsel is deemed necessary because the complex procedural and substantive safeguards in the law, which ensure fair trials, cannot be effective if the defendant is forced to stand trial without a defense counsel who has been educated to use them appropriately.(36)

      A defendant may waive the right to counsel, however. In Faretta v. California,(37) the Supreme Court recognized that the fundamental right to assistance of counsel does not imply that a state may constitutionally force an unwilling defendant to accept representation that he does not want.(38) Rather, the Faretta Court inferred a right of self-representation from the structure of the Sixth Amendment.(39) According to the Court, "[i]t is the accused, not counsel, who must be |informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,' who must be |confronted with the witnesses against him,' and who must be accorded |compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor."(40) The right to defend oneself, the Court noted, "is given directly to the accused; for it is he who suffers the consequences if the defense fails."(41) Since the Sixth Amendment speaks of the assistance of counsel, an attorney, however expert and versed in the intricacies of the law, is merely an assistant to a criminal defendant.(42) To force representation on an unwilling defendant would transform counsel from the defendant's mere assistant to his master.(43) The fact that a defendant would likely present a more effective defense with the assistance of counsel does not matter since a defendant's technical legal knowledge is irrelevant "to an assessment of his knowing exercise of the right to defend himself."(44)

      Likewise, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that "[n]o person shall ... be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."(45) The Supreme Court, in holding the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, has stated that "the privilege is one of the principles of a free government."(46) However, the Fifth Amendment does not imply that a defendant may never testify against himself; it merely guarantees that a defendant cannot be forced to do so.(47) A defendant will generally testify against himself after striking a plea bargain deal with the prosecution, whereby the accused usually agrees to plead "guilty to a lesser offense or to only one or some of the counts of a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for the graver charge."(48) But by pleading guilty, not only does a defendant waive the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination; that defendant also simultaneously waives several other constitutional rights, including the right to trial by jury and the right to confront one's accusers.(49)

      Until Santobello v. New York,(50) the constitutionality of plea bargaining arrangements was uncertain. The Santobello Court, in recognizing a defendant's right to plea bargain,(51) noted that plea bargaining is an "essential component of the administration of justice" that mutually benefits both the defendant and the state...

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