Insanity and incompetence in Minnesota

In light of the Aurora shooting we have been getting lots of questions about the use of insanity in criminal defense. This issue can sometimes be confused with incompetence. So here is a primer on the mental incompetence and the insanity defense in Minnesota:

How do the courts determine if someone is suffering from mental illness to the point they are incompetent?
Rule 20 of the Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure defines when a person should be considered incompetent. Either party can raise a Rule 20 issue through a motion that states the probable cause, even if the defendant is objecting. If defense counsel is raising the issue he or she is not required to divulge client confidences to bring a Rule 20 motion.

There are 2 key features to whether the courts will declare someone incompetent. First, if the person cannot consult with a reasonable degree of rational understanding with defense counsel OR second, the person is mentally ill or mentally deficient so as to be incapable of understanding the proceedings or participating in the defense.

What does the court do if a Rule 20 incompetency issue is raised?
First, if the court finds that there is probable cause for the motion then the criminal proceedings will be suspended. Second, the court has the discretion to take one of three paths: 1. proceed according to the Rule 20 requirements with a medical exam and subsequent hearings; 2. start civil commitment proceedings; 3. dismiss the case for lack of probable cause in the initial complaint. The decision will likely depend on the severity of the charge and the mental incapacity involved.

If the Rule 20 proceedings continue then a medical exam will be ordered by the court and after the defendant has completed this exam the report will be sent to the court and a subsequent hearing will take place. The exam includes information related to the diagnosis of the defendant, treatment, likelihood of future competence after treatment, any danger or risks the defendant poses to him or herself and others, and if the defendant refused to cooperate and why. After the report is submitted to all parties and the court, the parties have 10 days to object and have a hearing. After these issues are raised the court will determine if the defendant is either competent to proceed or incompetent. The court can also find a person is mentally ill or mentally deficient. Incompetence will result in dismissal of charges and mental illness or deficiency can result in civil commitment of an undetermined length.

How is this different from the insanity defense?
If a defendant uses the insanity defense, that person is not incompetent but claiming that at the time of the crime he or she was operating under a "defect of reason" that resulted in the defendant being unable to distinguish right from wrong. This definition is from the M'Naghten Rule, which is the standard for invoking an insanity defense in Minnesota.

What is the M'Naghten Rule?
M'Naghten rule was established about 150 years ago in Great Britain and Minnesota is among the 27 states that currently use the Rule. Minnesota Statute 611.026 codifies the M'Naghten Rule as follows: No person shall be tried, sentenced, or punished for any crime while mentally ill or mentally deficient so as to be incapable of understanding the proceedings or making a defense; but the person shall not be excused from criminal liability except upon proof that at the time of committing the alleged criminal act the person was laboring under such a defect of reason, from one of these causes, as not to know the nature of the act, or that it was wrong.

Under the M'Naughten Rule in Minnesota, the burden of proof of a mental illness is on the defendant. This is proved through a 2-step process: first stage of the trial the state has to prove that it met its burden of proof. If the first stage is proven, then in the second stage the defendant must prove he or she the mental illness.

Are there problems with the M'Naghten Rule?
There is an ongoing debate about the M'Naghten Rule and whether it covers the advances in mental illness diagnosis adequately. The sentencing guidelines do specifically mention schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and borderline personality disorder specifically but there are still a lot of questions as to the application of M'Naghten. Minnesota Law and Politics did a nice piece about the challenges and consequences that you can read here:

We hope this intro sheds some light on both incompetence and the insanity defense. If you are following the James Holmes trial, Colorado does use a modified version of M'Naghten that includes an Irresistible Impulse Test - it will be interesting to see if that is invoked. A bit of trivia to close, insanity is not actually a diagnostic term in the medical community and only appears in the legal context.