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When Can a Court Order a Mental Evaluation?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

When can a court order a mental or psychiatric evaluation? These evaluations often involve long medical and psychiatric tests, so they are not doled out lightly.

But as Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius' case shows, a mental evaluation can be ordered if it's alleged that a mental condition may have contributed to the commission of a crime. Pistorius is set to begin his psychiatric evaluation next week in South Africa, The Associated Press reports.

Similarly in the United States, courts can force a person to undergo mental evaluation, but only in certain circumstances. Here are a five common situations in which a court may order a mental evaluation:

1. When a Defendant Claims the Insanity Defense.

The insanity defense may operate differently in different states, but once a defendant asserts that defense, the court may order a mental evaluation.

These kinds of mental evaluations are more common in serious criminal cases (e.g., murder, terrorism, etc.) but may still be ordered in criminal cases in which the defendant (or his or her attorney) makes a strong argument for one.

In Pistorius' murder trial, a defense psychiatrist recently testified that she believes he suffers from an anxiety disorder. If the court-ordered psych evaluation reveals he was unable to distinguish between right and wrong, it may lead to a verdict of "not guilty by reason of mental illness," a South African legal expert told the AP.

2. Before an Execution.

Convicts on death row may petition the court for a mental evaluation prior to being executed. The U.S. Supreme Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute the developmentally disabled. This has lead to courts ordering mental evaluations for prisoners seeking habeas relief pending execution.

For example, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently halted an execution in Texas because a man was discovered to have an IQ of 69. Most courts consider 70 to be the borderline for mental retardation.

3. When Claiming Incompetence.

Often confused with the insanity determination, a person may be criminally insane but still competent to stand trial. If a defendant claims incompetence, it means not being able to understand the nature of the legal proceedings against him or her. Since this determination will affect how the case proceeds, courts will order mental evaluations for a defendant once this claim is made.

If found competent, the defendant goes back to trial.

4. When a Defendant Tries to Represent Himself/Herself.

It's typically a terrible idea to represent yourself in court -- especially in a criminal case when your freedom may be on the line. This may cause a judge to wonder if you are incompetent or insane, possibly leading to a court-ordered mental evaluation.

5. For Custody Determinations.

Custody is typically awarded based on the best interests of the child, and a parent's mental fitness can sway a judge one way or another.

These evaluations may not change anything, but they can give a clearer picture of where you stand.

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