Monday, March 04, 2013

No Requirement That Courts Apply Higher Competency Standard for Self Representation

US v. Bernard: Bernard was charged with gun and drug offenses.  Based on a long history of mental illness, the district court ordered a competency evaluation.  He was initially deemed incompetent to stand trial (due to schizophrenia, paranoid delusions, and disorganized thought processes), but after treatment was determined to have been restored to confidence.  At the second competency hearing, the district court addressed a motion by Bernard to proceed pro se (with then assigned counsel as standby).  The district court, having found Bernard competent, granted the motion, although it noted it was "not real comfortable with this" because it was a "fluid situation" that "may not be the same tomorrow."  Bernard went to trial and was convicted (after 12 minutes of deliberation!).  Sentencing, at which Bernard was again fully represented by counsel (although it's unclear precisely how that came to be) was initially delayed "after it became clear that [Bernard]'s mental condition was wholly compromised at that time."  When sentencing reconvened, Bernard was sentenced to 180 months in prison.

Bernard appealed his convictions, arguing that the district court erred by allowing him to proceed pro se and represent himself at trial and that, under the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in Edwards, the court was required to apply a higher standard to the pro se issue than the competency issue.  The Fourth Circuit disagreed and affirmed, 2-1.  Proceeding with a plain error analysis, the court first noted the fundamental nature of the Sixth Amendment right to self representation and that the Supreme Court in Godinez (1993) rejected the argument that the competency to waive constitutional rights (including the right to counsel) was a higher threshold than the competency to be tried in the first place.  Edwards, the court concluded, did not change that standard, but only permits the states to require counsel in cases where a defendant is competent to stand trial, but perhaps not competent to proceed pro se, but the Constitution does not require it.  As a result, there was no error, much less plain error, in the district court allowing Bernard to proceed pro se at trial.  Nor was the district court required to sua sponte revisit the issue of competency during trial.

Judge Diaz dissented, agreeing with the majority that Edwards provided a discretionary, not mandatory, duty on trial courts facing this issue, but disagreed that the district court in this case was aware of that discretion.

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