Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Humphrey, holding that Section 7403(e) of the MHPA authorizes a trial court to dismiss the charges of an individual deemed incompetent in any instance that the court finds it would be unjust to resume the prosecution due to the passage of time and its effect on criminal proceedings. Notably, the Supreme Court overruled prior precedent that an individual must regain competency before a trial court may dismiss charges due to the unreasonable nature of this condition and the plain language of the statutory text.

Commonwealth v. Humphrey

While serving a state sentence, the defendant allegedly threw a bag of urine on a corrections officer. A few months later, the defendant allegedly spat on a corrections officer. The Commonwealth charged the defendant with two counts of aggravated harassment by prisoner. Preliminary hearings occurred, and the charges were bound over for trial.

Defense counsel requested a psychiatric evaluation and competency examination of the defendant, and the trial court entered an order for these evaluations. Dr. Scott Scotilla evaluated the defendant and prepared a report. In the report, the defendant displayed paranoid and delusional behavior and frequently spoke about irrelevant topics, such as conspiracy theories, and did not answer Dr. Scotilla’s questions. Dr. Scotilla reviewed Department of Corrections Mental Health Contact Notes, which showed that the defendant had engaged in similar behavior previously. The defendant’s most recent diagnosis indicated he had antisocial personality disorder and mild intellectual disability. Dr. Scotilla concluded that the defendant should be evaluated at another psychiatric center which could more effectively evaluate the defendant and provide restoration of competency services if necessary, though Dr. Scotilla did not mention in his report if the defendant’s competency could be restored or if treatment options within the Department of Corrections could address his competency issues.

The defendant’s attorney filed a petition in the trial court claiming that the defendant could not understand the nature of the proceedings against him and that his mental illness prevented him from being criminally responsible for his offenses. During the hearing on this matter, the Commonwealth agreed that the defendant was not competent to proceed to trial at the time, and the trial court entered an order for the defendant to be admitted into involuntary treatment before the case would be reevaluated. The Department of Human Services ordered the defendant to be transferred to a hospital, but the hospital informed the Commonwealth that the defendant could not be admitted because he was a state inmate serving a sentence.

The defendant eventually filed a motion to dismiss his charges because the Commonwealth was unable to find him necessary competency restoration services, emphasizing the fact that two years had already passed since his offenses occurred and that he would likely not regain competency. The Commonwealth responded, arguing that the defendant did not present sufficient evidence that he would not regain competency to stand trial and requested that the defendant be reexamined for competency. The Commonwealth provided an assessment by Dr. Cynthia Wright of the DOC, where Dr. Wright opined that the defendant’s aggressive behavior was not due to mental illness, but instead due to a desire to receive special privileges. She opined that his diagnoses were antisocial personality disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, and adjustment disorder with depressed mood.  Notably, the defendant did not cooperate with Dr. Wright’s evaluation, so she based her report on the defendant’s progress notes, treatment plans, medication summaries, diagnosis summaries, and physicians’ notes.

The court held a hearing on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. All three witnesses agreed that the DOC does not provide competency restoration services to inmates serving state sentences, but the DOC can provide some mental health treatment. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss the criminal charges, referencing the Superior Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. McGargle and Section 7403(e), specifically the sentence that explains that a dismissal may occur if it would be unjust for the prosecution to resume based on the passage of time. The trial court noted that the defendant would only become eligible for competency restoration services in the next 2.5 to 13.5 years due to his current sentence and that even if he were paroled after 2.5 years, it is unlikely he would be able to recall the events of his offenses due to the passage of time and the severity of his incompetence.

The Commonwealth filed an appeal, raising the issues of whether the trial court’s dismissal of the defendant’s charges violated Section 7403, whether the evidence was insufficient that the defendant would be prejudiced by resuming criminal proceedings, and whether the trial court erred in dismissing the charges instead of ordering another competency evaluation. The Superior Court agreed that the trial court erroneously interpreted Section 7403(e), stating that relevant case law demonstrated that Section 7403(e) does not authorize dismissal of charges when a defendant would likely not regain competency. The Superior Court did not address the other two issues raised.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for allowance of appeal to address whether the Superior Court erred in reversing the dismissal of charges, where the defendant claimed that Section 7403(e) does authorize dismissal of charges when the resumption of prosecution would be unjust, evidence did establish that the defendant’s incompetence and the passage of time rendered the resumption of prosecution unjust, and competency evaluation was unnecessary since the trial court had concluded that sufficient time had passed for the prosecution to be rendered unjust.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court reviewed the MHPA, beginning with Section 7402(a), which states that when an individual who is charged with a crime is unable to understand the nature of the proceedings against him, he will be deemed incompetent to be tried, convicted, or sentenced for as long as the incapacity exists. Additionally, according to Section 7403(f), the stay of the prosecution may not last longer than 10 years in this case. The Supreme Court concluded that both the defendant’s and the Commonwealth’s interpretations of Section 7403(e) were reasonable. However, the Supreme Court determined that the consequences of the Commonwealth’s interpretation were not reasonable.

Under the Commonwealth’s interpretation, the trial court would not possess authority to dismiss criminal charges against an incompetent defendant under any circumstances. Section 7403(e) also does not state at any point that dismissal of charges is based on the defendant’s resumption of competency, which was part of the Commonwealth’s interpretation.

The Supreme Court also acknowledged that if ambiguity exists in a statute, the language should be interpreted in a way that is favorable to the defendant. The Supreme Court disagreed with the initial decision of the Superior Court, which presumed that the Legislature intended for the consequences of the statute to be unreasonable.

The Supreme Court reviewed relevant cases Hazur and McGargle, neither of which properly addressed whether a trial court may dismiss charges of an individual deemed incompetent for the foreseeable future. The Supreme Court determined that Section 7403(e) does grant trial courts the authority to dismiss criminal charges in any instance where it would be unjust to resume prosecution, whether or not the defendant has regained competency. The Supreme Court remanded the remaining issues to an intermediate appellate court. Therefore, the Superior Court vacated judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.