Q: What if the suspect just keeps repeatedly saying they do not understand their rights or the charges against them?
What happens if the defendant continously says they do not understand their rights or the charges throughout an arrest, detainment, interrogation, court appearance? How does the court proceed if the defendant refuses to even acknowledge any understanding of what is happening?
Generally speaking, a defendant cannot be required to stand trial if they are not mentally competent or fit to do so. Competency in the legal sense requires, at minimum, that a person be able to understand the nature of the proceedings against them and play a role in their own defense. In a 1975 case called Drope v. Missouri, the Supreme Court made this concept abundantly clear, stating that "a person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense, may not be subjected to a trial.” Suffice it to say, if the defendant truly cannot understand the most basic elements of the proceedings against them, then requiring them to stand trial would run afoul of their constitutional right to a fair trial.
Competency is addressed on a case-by-case basis. The judge presiding over the case will almost certainly require that the defendant undergo a competence evaluation by a qualified mental health expert and hold a hearing to rule on the defendant's competence to stand trial before the proceedings may resume. In its' assessment, the judge will take into account to the findings, opinions, and recommendations of the mental health expert who have evaluated the defendant's competency. The judge can also take in to account its' own observations in making its' assessment of whether the defendant is mentally fit to stand trial (i.e., their ability to communicate, answer questions, and make decisions). They may observe indicators of incompetency from the defendant’s behavior, such as whether or not they appear to understand basic elements of the proceedings or have the ability to relay information to their attorney.
Bear in mind that incompetence to stand trial is a fairly high standard to meet. A person will not automatically be deemed incompetent to stand trial simply because they say they do not understand the nature of the proceedings. Things like lack of education, a history of poor decision making, language barriers, or failure to understand complex legal nuances alone are not enough to declare someone legally incompetent to stand trial; a finding of incompetence must be supported by credible evidence. While a court cannot order an incompetent defendant stand trial, the judge can require that the defendant take certain measures that would restore their competence to stand trial (i.e., take medication or participate in treatment that could possibly alleviate their condition).
It is important to note that competency applies to the defendant’s current mental state as opposed to that person's mental state at the time of committing the alleged crime. Thus, while the police may make and arrest and the prosecution may file charges, the proceedings cannot continue unless and until the person is declared competent again. Unlike insanity, incompetency is not a defense to the underlying charge. In other words, you can plead insanity as a defense to a crime, but you cannot plead incompetence. Whatever the case may be, if the person is found to be legally incompetent to stand trial, the proceedings cannot continue—this holds true regardless of how strong the prosecution’s case may be.
I hope this helps!
Susanne Eltamimi agrees with this answer
A: As a criminal defense lawyer, I discuss the charges, potential defenses and evidentiary issues with my client, and help them set an outcome goal - within days of being retained. I look at all available information. If my client had told police repeatedly that they did not understand their rights or the claims being made against them, depending upon other facts not stated in the question, that might relate to issues of competency, mental health, intoxication, language barriers, voluntariness of statements made, validity of a Miranda rights waiver, insanity, and perhaps a few more issues. So, if presented with this question by a client, I would probe for more information about the actual situation. If you are charged with a crime, discuss with your attorney or reach out to an attorney by phone to begin a discussion.
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