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Competency evaluation and restoration in legal cases

Learn more about competency, court evaluations, and how it affects the outcome of a case.

Competency is a legal term describing a defendant’s current mental state and can change throughout the life of the case. Defendants are always presumed competent. A defendant is incompetent if through mental disease or defect they 1 or both statements about them are true:

  • Unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against them.
  • Unable to aide in their defense.

Competency evaluation

If a defendant is sent for competency evaluation, it means concern has been raised about the defendant’s competency. Regular criminal proceedings are suspended while competency is in question.

The defendant will have an evaluation done by a Forensic Evaluator with the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) (a Licensed Psychologist). This evaluator will conduct an interview with the defendant, assess the defendant’s mental status and reasoning ability, review current and historical medical, mental health, and jail records, and other relevant information.

The evaluator assesses if the defendant is competent (able to understand the nature of the proceedings against them and able to aide their attorney in their defense). If the defendant is not competent, the evaluator will also make a recommendation as to if the defendant can be restored to competency. The court (a judge) makes the official determination on competence and often adopts the opinions of the evaluator.

After a competency evaluation

There are 3 possible outcomes:

  1. The evaluation supports competency
    • The defendant is found competent and regular criminal proceedings will continue where they left off.
  2. The evaluation supports incompetency:
    • The defendant is found incompetent. If the evaluation recommends restoration, then a restoration order is likely to be entered.
    • If restoration is not recommended, the case will likely be dismissed and the defendant would be referred for a civil commitment evaluation.
  3. The evaluation does not support a finding of competency or incompetency:
    • A supplemental evaluation may be ordered or the defendant may be transported to Western State Hospital to have a 15-day inpatient evaluation done.

Competency restoration

Restoration is a treatment provided by the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) with the goal of returning a defendant to competency so they can be prosecuted. Restoration periods typically are 45 or 90 days in length and are most often provided in an inpatient hospitalization setting. Less dangerous defendant may be eligible for outpatient restoration. During restoration, defendants can be provided antipsychotic medications, stable and drug free living conditions, education on the criminal justice system, and other services to get them stable and at a point where they are competent.

Follow the detailed process on the Competency Restoration Flowchart (112KB)

Competency restored

After a defendant´s competency has been restored, a defendant can be prosecuted. Once competent, the criminal proceedings will resume at the stage they left off prior to competency concerns being raised.

Competency unrestorable

If the defendant´s competency is unrestorable, and the defendant is incompetent after several restoration periods, the defendant cannot be legally prosecuted, and the criminal case must be dismissed. The defendant will be sent to Western State Hospital for an involuntary civil commitment evaluation. This evaluation is 5 days in length. At the end of the evaluation, DSHS can petition a civil court to involuntarily commit a defendant. The length of time a defendant is committed varies and could potentially be long term. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will be notified prior to the defendant getting released from DSHS’s custody. On very serious cases, the prosecutors may refile charges if there has been a substantial change in the defendant´s condition.

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