Articles Posted in Competency

behind barsThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently took up the case of a Florida man convicted of acting as a pimp for a minor girl. The court’s decision is a good example of the serious consequences that can come with being charged with sex trafficking and the significant leeway that judges have in deciding whether a Florida criminal defendant is competent to stand trial.

Defendant was convicted of two federal crimes—sex trafficking of a minor child and inducing a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction—for taking advantage of a 16-year-old girl who had ran away from home. He took sexually suggestive photos of the girl, according to the court, and uploaded them to an internet site for prostitution. The girl said Defendant made her have sex with four or five men per day and then give the money she earned to him. He also allegedly plied the girl with crack cocaine.

A presentencing report indicated that Defendant had been receiving Social Security Disability benefits since he was five years old because of “learning disabilities.” He told the court he could not read, write, or spell, and suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. Defendant’s attorney also submitted an evaluation showing that Defendant had a very low IQ—equal to or better than only 0.1 percent of his peers—and that he suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

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Florida criminal cases involving a defendant with mental and emotional conditions can raise a number of complicated legal issues. The state’s First District Court of Appeal made clear in a recent sex crime case that there are certain circumstances in which a judge is required to hold a hearing to determine whether a person is competent to stand trial and to issue a written decision on that question before proceeding to trial.

gavelDefendant was charged with sexual battery of a person under twelve years of age and lewd or lascivious molestation of a person under twelve years of age, stemming from an undisclosed incident. Before trial on those charges, Defendant’s lawyer asked the judge to first determine whether Defendant was sufficiently competent to stand trial.

One court-appointed expert concluded that Defendant wasn’t able to adequately understand the charges against him, but a second court-appointed expert said Defendant was competent to participate in the case. After a competency hearing, the trial court found that Defendant was sufficiently competent to proceed to trial. The judge made that decision orally, but didn’t issue a written ruling on the competency issue.

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A person charged with a sex crime in Florida has a few options when it comes to entering a plea in court. In addition to pleading “guilty” or “not guilty,” the person can also plead “no contest.” This option means the person is not saying that he or she is guilty, only that he or she won’t contest the charges. As a recent case out of Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal shows, it is important to be fully aware of the potential penalties you’re facing before you enter a plea.

prison wireDefendant was charged with various counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of a victim under 16 years of age, lewd and lascivious exhibition to a victim under 16 years of age, battery, possession of child pornography, and use of a computer server to seduce, solicit, or entice a child. He eventually pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 40 years behind bars. Defendant later appealed the convictions, arguing that he wouldn’t have pleaded no contest if the trial judge had adequately explained to him that he was facing as much as 101 years in prison on the charges.

Although the judge may have told Defendant about the maximum penalty for each of the offenses, he said he wasn’t aware that those penalties could be imposed consecutively (back-to-back) rather than concurrently (at the same time). The trial judge sided with state prosecutors, who argued that the judge met his responsibility by simply informing Defendant of the maximum penalties per offense. The judge rejected Defendant’s request to withdraw his plea.

Florida sex crime cases often raise questions about the mental health of the person charged with a crime. That’s why judges in many of these cases will hold a hearing to determine whether a defendant has the competence to understand the charges against him, consult with counsel, and participate in the trial. If not, the person may be sent to a facility to receive mental health treatment and later re-evaluated. In a recent decision, Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal explained that judges are free to base competency determinations largely on the input of mental health experts.

solo guyA defendant was charged with various crimes stemming from an incident in which he allegedly filmed and took photos of young girls while they were sleeping. “Questions quickly arose concerning his competency to proceed” at trial, the court said. The trial judge ordered a competency hearing and appointed two mental health experts to evaluate him. Both experts eventually concluded that he was sufficiently competent to stand trial.

The experts’ reports were admitted into evidence during the competency hearing, but no witnesses were called. Although the judge ordered the defendant’s lawyer to prepare a draft order finding the defendant competent to stand trial, the Second District said any such order wasn’t included in the record brought to the appeals court. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, followed by 15 years of probation.

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