NOT TO BE PUBLISHED IN OFFICIAL REPORTS
In this writ proceeding, petitioner Jonathan Santiago-Herrera challenges a trial court decision to proceed to trial without conducting a competency hearing. He contends the court was required to conduct a competency hearing because it was presented with substantial evidence raising a reasonable doubt about his competence to stand trial. We agree with petitioner and shall issue a writ directing the trial court to conduct a competency hearing.
Factual and Procedural Background
On October 22, 2015, the Contra Costa County District Attorney filed an information charging petitioner with two counts of aggravated assault (Pen. Code,
At a readiness conference on September 8, 2016, defense counsel declared a doubt as to petitioner's competency to stand trial. (§ 1367.) Counsel reported that petitioner had previously been found incompetent and had only recently been restored to competency before this criminal case was initiated. Counsel claimed to have had petitioner tested by Dr. Andrew Pojman, a licensed psychologist, who expressed an opinion that petitioner was not competent to proceed to trial and was not able to assist counsel with his own defense. Counsel also stated that petitioner was a regional center client and that a representative from the regional center was in court and available to testify. The court responded that it was prepared to declare a doubt about petitioner's competency to stand trial under section 1368, suspend proceedings, and appoint "a couple doctors" to evaluate petitioner. The prosecutor then stated that another judge had declined to declare a doubt about petitioner's competency a year earlier and expressed concern about defense counsel's rendition of the facts. The court withdrew its order declaring a doubt about petitioner's competency and put the matter over to the following day.
When the court reconvened on September 9, 2016, the trial judge stated that she had reviewed a number of documents in the file, including health progress notes as well as a probation report from 2015. The court also reviewed Dr. Pojman's curriculum vitae and a letter dated September 8, 2016, that Dr. Pojman had written. In the letter, Dr. Pojman wrote that he had evaluated petitioner at the Martinez Detention Facility and administered a number of tests. He reported that petitioner was "an emotionally disturbed late adolescent with notable deficits in emotional control, attention, memory, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, and language processing — all elements of executive functioning." Dr. Pojman opined that petitioner's neuropsychological weaknesses significantly hindered his capacity to participate in his own defense, and he reported that petitioner had a clinically significant impairment of his ability to understand and appreciate what is told to him. Dr. Pojman stated that he would be writing a report to further explain his opinion.
After conducting a brief in camera hearing with petitioner and his counsel, the court stated that it could not find a doubt about petitioner's competency to stand trial. The court explained that merely because petitioner had been found incompetent in the past and may have been developmentally delayed does not mean he is presently incompetent to stand trial. The court also characterized Dr. Pojman's letter as "conclusory" and stated that it may have found a doubt about petitioner's competency if it had been provided with test results and other findings.
Defense counsel renewed her doubt about petitioner's competency on September 15, 2016, when she submitted Dr. Pojam's written "forensic psychological evaluation," dated September 13, 2016, as well as an April 2016 report prepared by the Contra Costa County Office of Education. The trial court continued the matter to the next day in order to review the reports.
Dr. Pojman's forensic psychological evaluation described petitioner as "a significantly disturbed and traumatized late adolescent who presents with notable cognitive difficulties especially in the area of verbal reception, expression, and comprehension." Dr. Pojman concluded that petitioner was "not capable of meeting the competency criteria needed to stand trial especially as related to his ability to appropriately collaborate with this attorney." The evaluation noted that petitioner had been found incompetent to stand trial when he was almost 15 years old and had received remediation. According to Dr. Pojman, petitioner suffers from a "severe language disability" that makes him "unable to mentally organize himself, think through even the simplest of problems, and find the right words to express himself." While not technically developmentally disabled, petitioner has verbal abilities similar to someone who is "intellectually significantly impaired. . . ."
The April 2016 "triennial psychoeducational evaluation" prepared by the Contra Costa County Office of Education reported the results of a number of tests, including a measure of intelligence that assessed petitioner's ability to reason with previously learned information. Petitioner scored in the extremely low range and ranked in the first percentile. The evaluation concluded that petitioner satisfied the criteria for a special education handicapping condition identified as "emotional disturbance."
At the outset of court proceedings on September 16, 2016, the trial judge announced that she had read Dr. Pojman's report and the Contra Costa County Office of Education's evaluation. The court concluded that it could not find a doubt as to petitioner's competency to stand trial, reasoning that the conclusions contained in the reports "would apply to the majority of the people in our jail" who suffer from traumatic upbringings and emotional disturbances. The court stated that defense counsel had offered nothing to show that petitioner was a regional center client, and it characterized petitioner as having "average intelligence" without any indication that he is developmentally disabled or suffering from a mental disease or defect. According to the court, petitioner may have been "emotionally disturbed" but that was not a qualifying circumstance under section 1368 that would permit the court to suspend proceedings and conduct a full evidentiary hearing. The court concluded: "I do not find that I have a doubt as to [petitioner's] competence based on the standards I must use. There is no evidence that he has a mental disease or defect and there is insufficient evidence that he is developmentally disabled to the point where he is not able to cooperate with counsel."
Petitioner filed a petition in this court requesting the issuance of a writ of mandate directing the superior court to vacate its order declining to find a doubt as to his competency to stand trial and to enter a new order suspending criminal proceedings, appointing a doctor to evaluate petitioner, and setting an evidentiary hearing to assess whether petitioner is competent to stand trial. We stayed the trial in this matter, requested informal opposition, and gave notice that, if appropriate, this court might resolve the issue without further hearing pursuant to Palma v. U.S. Industrial Fasteners, Inc. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 171 (Palma).
The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and state law prohibit the state from trying or convicting a defendant while he or she is mentally incompetent. (People v. Sattiewhite (2014) 59 Cal.4th 446, 464; People v. Mai (2013) 57 Cal.4th 986, 1032; People v. Rogers (2006) 39 Cal.4th 826, 846 (Rogers); § 1367, subd. (a).) A defendant is incompetent to stand trial "if, as a result of mental disorder or developmental disability, the defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner." (§ 1367, subd. (a).) Competence to stand trial requires a defendant's "`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.'" (Dusky v. United States (1960) 362 U.S. 402.)
A competency hearing is required when the trial court declares a doubt as to the defendant's competence to stand trial and defense counsel informs the court in response to the court's statement that the defendant is or may be mentally incompetent. (§ 1368, subd. (a)). A competency hearing is also required if defense counsel informs the court that he or she has a doubt as to the defendant's competency and produces substantial evidence that the defendant is not competent: "[O]nce the accused has come forward with substantial evidence of incompetence to stand trial, due process requires that a full competence hearing be held as a matter of right." (People v. Welch (1999) 20 Cal.4th 701, 738 (Welch); accord, People v. Sattiewhite, supra, 59 Cal.4th at p. 465.) If there is substantial evidence the defendant is not competent to stand trial, the trial court must suspend the criminal proceeding and hold a full competency hearing; the court has no discretion to do otherwise. (Welch, supra, at p. 738.) The court's duty to hold a competency hearing arises even if the evidence is in conflict (ibid.) or the trial judge does not personally entertain a doubt as to whether the defendant is competent. (People v. Pennington (1967) 66 Cal.2d 508, 518-519.) A failure to declare a doubt and conduct a hearing when there is substantial evidence of incompetence requires reversal of the judgment of conviction. (Rogers, supra, 39 Cal.4th at p. 847.)
In this context, "substantial evidence" has been defined as evidence that is sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt concerning the defendant's competence to stand trial. (Welch, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 738.) "Substantial evidence of incompetence exists when a qualified mental health expert who has examined the defendant states under oath, and `"`with particularity,'"' a professional opinion that because of mental illness, the defendant is incapable of understanding the purpose or the nature of the criminal proceedings against him, or of cooperating with counsel. [Citations.] [¶] The defendant's demeanor and irrational behavior may also, in proper circumstances, constitute substantial evidence of incompetence." (People v. Mai, supra, 57 Cal.4th at pp. 1032-1033.)
In this case, a mental health professional, Dr. Pojman, opined that petitioner does not meet the competency criteria needed to stand trial because he cannot appropriately collaborate with his attorney. Dr. Pojman reported that petitioner suffers from a "severe language disability" and has verbal abilities similar to someone who is "intellectually significantly impaired. . . ." During the in camera hearing conducted by the court, petitioner's defense counsel stated that petitioner was incapable of articulating facts that would be relevant to any defenses or the decision whether to accept a plea.
Under the circumstances, petitioner has offered evidence sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt concerning his competence to stand trial. The court had no choice but to suspend proceedings and conduct a full competency hearing. The court seemed to believe the evidence provided to it was less than substantial unless petitioner's inability to assist in his own defense was attributable to a formally diagnosed mental disorder or developmental disability. But as long as petitioner has offered substantial evidence that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings and assist in his own defense as a result of his mental condition, he has satisfied the threshold to merit a full competency hearing. He was not required to offer evidence of a specific mental disorder or developmental disability in order to raise a doubt about his competence to stand trial.
Because the failure to declare a doubt and conduct a full competency hearing under these circumstances would require reversal of any subsequent judgment of conviction (Rogers, supra, 39 Cal.4th at p. 847), it is appropriate to rectify the error by writ before any further proceedings have been conducted. Further, because petitioner's entitlement to relief is clear and no useful purpose would be served by plenary consideration of the issue, the accelerated Palma procedure is appropriate. (Palma, supra, 36 Cal.3d 171; see Lewis v. Superior Court (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1232, 1261.)
Let a peremptory writ of mandate issue directing respondent superior court to conduct a full competency hearing pursuant to section 1367 et seq. This decision is final as to this court immediately upon filing. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.490(b)(2)(A).) The stay previously issued by this court shall remain in effect until the issuance of the remittitur.
Siggins, J. and Jenkins, J., concurs.