California Penal Code Section 1368 - Interpretation

In adult criminal proceedings, the question of competence is governed by Penal Code section 1368, which provides, in relevant part: "(a) If, during the pendency of an action and prior to judgment, a doubt arises in the mind of the judge as to the mental competence of the defendant, he or she shall state that doubt in the record and inquire of the attorney for the defendant whether, in the opinion of the attorney, the defendant is mentally competent. If the defendant is not represented by counsel, the court shall appoint counsel. At the request of the defendant or his or her counsel or upon its own motion, the court shall recess the proceedings for as long as may be reasonably necessary to permit counsel to confer with the defendant and to form an opinion as to the mental competence of the defendant at that point in time. (b) If counsel informs the court that he or she believes the defendant is or may be mentally incompetent, the court shall order that the question of the defendant's mental competence is to be determined in a hearing which is held pursuant to Sections 1368.1 and 1369. If counsel informs the court that he or she believes the defendant is mentally competent, the court may nevertheless order a hearing. Any hearing shall be held in the superior court. (c) Except as provided in Section 1368.1, when an order for a hearing into the present mental competence of the defendant has been issued, all proceedings in the criminal prosecution shall be suspended until the question of the present mental competence of the defendant has been determined." Like Welfare and Institutions Code section 709, Penal Code section 1369 requires the appointment of a psychiatrist or psychologist to evaluate the defendant's competency. In People v. Hale (1988) 44 Cal.3d 531 244 Cal. Rptr. 114, 749 P.2d 769 (Hale) the trial court expressed a doubt as to the defendant's competency on the record and appointed psychiatrists to evaluate defendant. (Id. at p. 535, fn. 5.) However, no hearing was ever held and after continuances the defendant entered a plea and the case proceeded to trial. (Id. at p. 536.) The Hale court held that "once the trial court ordered the hearing, as it reasonably did, it could not simply vacate the order, sub silentio." (Id. at p. 540.) The People asserted that the defendant's changed mental condition obviated the need for a competency hearing, but the court held that "this argument was misplaced. As stated earlier, Penal Code section 1368 'requires that if at any time during the pendency of a criminal case a doubt arises as to mental competency, all criminal proceedings must be suspended until a hearing has been conducted to determine whether the defendant is presently mentally competent.' Indeed, once a doubt has arisen as to the competence of the defendant to stand trial, the trial court has no jurisdiction to proceed with the case against the defendant without first determining his competence in a Penal Code section 1368 hearing, and the matter cannot be waived by defendant or his counsel." (Id. at pp. 540-541.) In People v. Marks (1988) 45 Cal.3d 1335 248 Cal. Rptr. 874, 756 P.2d 260 (Marks), the court reiterated its holding in Hale that "once a trial court has ordered a competency hearing pursuant to Penal Code section 1368, the court lacks jurisdiction to conduct further proceedings on the criminal charge or charges against the defendant until the court has determined whether he is competent. This determination is mandated by the federal constitutional requirement of due process and by unambiguous California statutes." (Id. at p. 1337.) In Marks, defense counsel "expressed severe doubt" as to the defendant's competency and based on that representation, the trial court expressed a doubt as to the defendant's competency on the record and ordered a competency hearing. (Id. at p. 1338.) The trial court appointed two psychiatrists to examine defendant. (Ibid.)