June 01, 2013

Criminal Competency Standard Applied to Youth in Delinquency Proceeding

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

SWM v. State, 2013 WL 1775733 (Wyo.).

Trial court erred in disregarding criminal standard for competency determinations when youth’s attorney contended he was incompetent to stand trial on delinquency petitions. Because juvenile statute was silent on matter, like criminal statute, and was intended to protect youth’s due process rights, criminal standards governed.

A youth was aged 12 at the time of an initial hearing on two delinquency petitions, where the court informed him of his rights under the Constitution and Wyoming law. The court discussed potential sanctions if found delinquent and the differences being juvenile and criminal court. Despite the court’s best efforts at explanation, the youth had difficulty understanding the information. Accordingly, the court appointed counsel for the child and entered a denial of the allegations on the record. 

The youth’s newly appointed counsel promptly filed a motion for an evaluation, indicating he had concerns about whether the youth understood the allegations and proceedings based on his age and maturity. The court ordered an evaluation to assess whether the youth had a mental illness or deficiency, lacked capacity to comprehend the proceedings and participate in his defense, and whether he should be held in a treatment facility.

The evaluator noted the youth had borderline intellectual functioning at an intelligence quotient of 71, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and receptive and expressive language deficiencies. 

Regarding competency, she noted that although he could not be expected to perform academically at average 12-year-old standards, he was aware he was in serious trouble and could be taken from his home, and would not meet requirements to be involuntarily committed. Further, she noted, his limited maturity combined with his developmental delay and ADHD would likely prevent him from adequately understanding the allegations and participating in his defense. She believed it was possible he would be able to comprehend such things in his late teens or early twenties.

After a hearing, the juvenile court found the criminal standard relied on by the evaluator did not apply in juvenile court given the different, rehabilitative, nature of juvenile proceedings. The court found the youth was competent to proceed because he did not have a mental illness so severe as to require involuntary commitment. The youth appealed. 

The Wyoming Supreme Court outlined the parties’ positions. Both the youth and the state agreed that a youth alleged to be delinquent is entitled under constitutional due process to an evaluation and determination of whether he or she is competent. The parties differed on what the correct standard was for the determination. The youth argued that, since the Wyoming Juvenile Justice Act was silent on competency standards, the Criminal Code applied.  

The Wyoming Supreme Court noted that it is well established that in criminal trials, a person who cannot understand the proceedings, consult with his counsel, and participate in his defense cannot stand trial. The court cited In re Gault, and later cases where the U.S. Supreme Court found Fourteenth Amendment due process rights applied to juveniles. The U.S. Supreme Court had not, however, specifically addressed competency. The Wyoming Supreme Court examined decisions from other states that held that due process required a youth be competent to proceed. 

Although the juvenile statute did not state what standard the juvenile court should use to judge competency, it did give specific authority for courts to order evaluations and examinations of youth. The court concluded that a rational inference from that section was that one purpose of evaluations would be to determine competency. 

Given this gap, the court noted the criminal standards were consistent with the Juvenile Act, which strives to protect party’s constitutional rights. The court also held the right to counsel has little meaning for some children if there is no requirement to be competent. 

However, even juveniles without developmental delays will not have the same rational understanding of proceedings that an adult would. Thus, the court held the proper approach to assessing a juvenile’s competency is to apply age-appropriate norms, not to hold them to an adult standard of understanding and participation.

Because the court applied the incorrect standard, the case was remanded.