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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

Adjudicative Competence


Due process prohibits the conviction of a person who is mentally incompetent.1 In Drope v. Missouri, the Court held 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 trial.” Adjudicative competence is generally raised at the pretrial stage of delinquency proceedings, but it can be raised at any point in the proceedings, including post-trial.

A defendant is entitled to a pretrial hearing on competency to stand trial.3 At the competency hearing, commonly referred to as a Blair Hearing, the defendant bears the burden of proving his incompetence by a “preponderance of the evidence.”4  The legal standard for determining competency to stand trial is whether the defendant “has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding - and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” The competency standard for pleading guilty is the same as the competency standard for standing trial established in Dusky.6

1  Jeter v. State, 417 S.E.2d 594 (S.C. 1992), citing Bishop v. United States, 350 U.S. 961, (1956); 2  Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975); 3  State v. Blair, 273 S.E.2d 536 (S.C. 1981); § 44-23-430; 4  State v. Reed, 503 S.E.2d 747 (S.C. 1998); 5  Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), cited in State v. Reed, 503 S.E.2d 747 (S.C. 1998), State v. Hill, 604 S.E.2d 696 (S.C 2004); 6  Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993); State v. Lambert, 225 S.E.2d 340 (S.C. 1976).


Quick View

  • If there is reason to believe a child is unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense due to lack of mental capacity, the judge shall order a competency evaluation:
    • by two DMH-designated examiners if child is suspected of having a mental illness;
    • by two DDSN-designated examiners if child is suspected of having intellectual or a related disability; or
    • by examiners from both agencies if child is believed to have both mental illness and intellectual or a related disability. § 44-23-410.
    • If the DMH examiners find indications of intellectual or a related disability but not mental illness, DMH shall inform the court that the child is “not mentally ill” and should be evaluated by DDSN instead of DMH. Likewise, if the DDSN examiners find indications of mental illness but not intellectual disability or a related disability, DDSN shall inform the court that the child does “not have intellectual disability” and should be evaluated by DMH instead of DDSN. If either agency finds a preliminary indication of dual diagnosis of mental illness and intellectual or a related disability, this must be reported to the court with a recommendation that one DMH examiner and one DDSN examiner be designated to further evaluate the child and render a final report on the child’s mental capacity. §44-23-410(D). 
  • Judge may commit the child to a DMH or DDSN facility for up to 15 days for "examination and observation." § 44-23-410(A)(2).
  • The ordering of a competency examination is within the judge's discretion despite the mandatory language of § 44-23-410, and absent a clear showing of an abuse of this discretion, a refusal to grant an examination will not be disturbed on appeal. State v. Locklair, 535 S.E.2d 420 (S.C. 2000), State v. Singleton, 472 S.E.2d 640 (S.C. Ct. App. 1996). See also State v. Colden, 641 S.E. 2d 912 (S.C. Ct. App.2007).
    • "The statutory injunction, that an examination be ordered when the … judge `has reason to believe' that a defendant is not mentally competent to stand trial, involves the exercise of the discretion of the trial judge in evaluating the facts presented on the question of competency." State v. Drayton, 243 S.E.2d 458, 459 (S.C. 1978).
    • Three factors to consider in determining whether further inquiry into child competency is warranted include: evidence of child’s irrational behavior, child’s demeanor at trial, and any prior medical opinion on child’s competence to stand trial. State v. Burgess, 590 S.E.2d 42 (S.C. Ct. App. 2003).
  • Upon request by the child, the court may authorize child to be examined additionally by a designated examiner of the child's choice. § 44-23-410(C).
    • The court may prescribe the time and conditions under which the independent examination is conducted.
  • Evaluation is to be conducted within 30 days of receipt of court's order. § 44-23-410(A)(1).
  • The court may commit child to a DMH or DDSN facility for up to 15 days for "examination and observation." § 44-23-410(A)(2).
  • DMH or DDSN may apply for an extension of up to 15 more days to complete the examination or the “examination and observation” if necessary. § 44-23-410(B).
  • The examiners are required to issue a written report to the court:
    • within 10 days of the examination under § 44-23-410(A)(1), or
    • at the conclusion of the observation period under § 44-23-410(A)(2).
  • Upon receiving the evaluation report, the court must set a date for a competency hearing and provide child and his attorney with notice of the hearing. § 44-23-430. See also State v. Blair, 273 S.E.2d 536 (S.C. 1981).
  • The report shall include:
    • a diagnosis of the child’s mental condition; and
    • clinical findings regarding whether or not child is capable of understanding the proceedings against him and assisting in his own defense; and if not, whether there is a substantial probability that he will attain that capacity in the foreseeable future. § 44-23-420(A).
  • The report shall not contain any findings regarding insanity unless further examination on the question of insanity is ordered by the court. § 44-23-420(B).

Hearing Checklist

  • The examination report is admissible as evidence in the competency hearing and it is a statutory exception to the rule against hearsay. § 44-23-420(C); State v. Franklin, 456 S.E.2d 357 (S.C. 1995).
  • However, information in a court-ordered mental health examination is inadmissible "for purposes other than that ordered by the court."  Hudgins v. Moore, 524 S.E.2d 105 (S.C. 1999), citing State v. Myers, 67 S.E.2d 506 (S.C. 1951); See also State v. Thompson, 495 S.E.2d 437 (S.C. 1998) (attorney-client privilege prohibits use of defendant's communications to a mental health expert for impeachment).
  • If the court finds child fit to stand trial, delinquency proceedings resume. § 44-23-430
    • If at any subsequent point in the proceedings, the court has reason to question child’s ability to understand the proceedings or assist counsel in his defense, the issue of competency may be revisited.
  • If the court finds child unfit to stand trial and unlikely to become fit to stand trial in the foreseeable future, the solicitor is required to initiate judicial admission proceedings within 14 days excluding weekends and holidays, during which time the court may order child hospitalized or continued in detention if already detained. § 44-23-430(2).
  • If the court finds child unfit to stand trial but likely to become fit to stand trial in the foreseeable future the court shall order child hospitalized up to an additional 60 days.
    • If child is found to be unfit at the conclusion of the additional treatment period, solicitor shall initiate judicial admission proceedings within 14 days, excluding weekends and holidays, during which time child shall remain hospitalized. §44-23-430(3).
    • Such finding “does not preclude any legal objection to the prosecution of the [child] which is susceptible of fair determination prior to trial” and without the defendant’s participation. § 44-23-440.
    • Finding may be reexamined at any time on the motion of the court or either party. § 44-23-450.
  • When the hospital determines a child with pending charges no longer requires hospitalization, the family court shall be notified and shall conduct a new hearing on the fitness to stand trial. § 44-23-460.
    • If the court finds the child remains unfit to stand trial, it must order child’s release from the hospital.
    • If the court finds the child fit to stand trial, it may order that delinquency proceedings be resumed, or dismiss the charges and order child released.

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