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The Federal Criminal Competency System
By Richard D. Willstatter
If you have a client who has a mental illness and is charged with a federal crime, you must learn to navigate a daunting statutory and case law framework. Defense counsel will have a series of important decisions to make which can greatly affect your client’s liberty interests. The more we know about the law of competency and mental illness, the less likely we are to make mistakes that can harm our clients.
Federal Competency Statute
Suppose your client strikes you as somewhat imbalanced mentally. You may be concerned that he may be unable to assist in his defense. The statute, Title 18, United States Code, Section 4241, permits you (or the prosecutor) to file a motion for a hearing to determine the defendant’s competence. A hearing must be ordered if the court determines there is reasonable cause to believe the defendant is suffering from a mental disease or defect “such that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to properly assist in
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