Washington Supreme Court Finds Detaining Incompetent Defendant Violation of Substantive Due Process

Sometimes a criminal defendant is not competent to stand trial.  Washington criminal law sets out procedures for competency evaluations and restorative treatment.  Unfortunately, there are not always sufficient resources for these procedures to timely occur.  This lack of resources does not justify holding defendants in jail for excessive amounts of time until resources are available.

A defendant recently challenged his conviction and alleged a violation of substantive due process because he had been detained in jail pending transfer to the hospital for competency restoration treatment.  The trial court found the defendant was not competent to stand trial and ordered him to be committed to Western State Hospital (WSH) for 45 days within 15 days of the order.   76 days passed before the defendant was admitted to WSH. During that period, he twice moved to have the charges against him dismissed based on a substantive due process violation. He also moved in the alternative for the hospital to show cause as to why it should not be held in contempt.  The court ordered a show cause hearing, but denied the motion to dismiss.  Before the hearing occurred, the defendant filed two more motions to dismiss.

A doctor provided a declaration for the show cause hearing stating the hospital had to put the defendant on a waiting list.  The doctor stated the average wait time for a 45-day restoration case was 71 days.

The trial court found the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in contempt of the order and further ordered the defendant to be transported to the hospital by the following day.  The court sanctioned DSHS for every day it went past the new deadline without admitting the defendant to WSH.  He was finally admitted after a total of 76 days from the original order.

The defendant was subsequently found competent to stand trial and found guilty of the charges.  He appealed.  The appeals court found the state violated his substantive due process rights by detaining him for 76 days before he was admitted to the hospital, but that he had not shown his right to a fair trial had been prejudiced and was not entitled to dismissal.  The defendant petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review.

An incompetent defendant has a liberty interest in freedom from incarceration and in receiving restorative treatment.  When an incompetent defendant is detained in jail pending restorative treatment, the court must balance those liberty interests against the state’s interests to determine if due process rights have been violated.  The court must consider if the nature and duration of the detention is reasonably related to the purpose of the commitment.

The statute in place at the time set a “performance target” for a defendant in pretrial custody awaiting restorative treatment to be admitted within seven days.  Former RCW 10.77.068.  The statute specifically stated the performance target is not a basis for a motion to dismiss criminal charges.

Federal courts that have considered the issue have held that detaining an incompetent defendant for long periods of time pending treatment is not reasonable related to the reason for commitment and therefore violates his or her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights.  Courts have noted that holding an incompetent defendant in jail can cause further deterioration of his or her mental health, thereby conflicting with the entire purpose of restoration treatment.  Courts have held that seven days is the upper limit for holding an incompetent person in jail before restorative treatment.

The Washington Supreme Court found that the balancing of interests weighed in favor of the defendant here.  The Court considered the seven day limit expressed by the 9th Circuit and the seven day performance target in the statute and affirmed the Court of Appeals determination that the defendant’s substantive due process rights had been violated.

The defendant sought to have the charges dismissed with prejudice.  The Court noted that there are two statutes that provide for charges against incompetent defendants to be dismissed without prejudice.  RCW 10.77.079 allows a prosecutor to dismiss charges against a potentially incompetent defendant without prejudice and refer the defendant to be assessed by a mental health professional.  Additionally, the court may dismiss charges without prejudice if it finds the defendant’s competency has not been restored by the end of the competency restoration period, pursuant to RCW 10.77.084.  Case law has also held that a trial court can dismiss charges without prejudice under RCW 10.77.084 if the defendant is not admitted for treatment within the competency restoration period specified in the court order.  The Court found dismissal with prejudice was not warranted in this case.  The delay was caused by a lack of resources at WSH, and the trial court sanctioned WSH.  The Court noted that the defendant may be able to file a civil claim for damages, but dismissal with prejudice was not warranted.  The Court affirmed the Court of Appeals.

Unfortunately, the criminal courts did not offer this defendant a remedy.  This case will, however, help future defendants who are in the same position potentially get their cases dismissed without prejudice rather than being detained in jail indefinitely.  If you are facing criminal charges, an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney can help you protect your rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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