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9th Cir. Tosses Week-Long Window for Competency Determinations

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 09, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When a person's competency to stand trial for a crime is in question in Washington State, state law requires the state Department of Social and Health Services to evaluate them within seven to 21 days. Because of staffing, budgeting, and other limitations, detained individuals often go weeks without an evaluation, during which they may be held in solitary confinement, often exacerbating mental illnesses.

Following a class action lawsuit on behalf of such detained individuals, a federal district required a series of reforms from the state services that included a seven-day maximum for providing competency determinations. On appeal, while the Ninth Circuit agreed that jail was "no substitute" for therapeutic evaluation and treatment, the court tossed the seven-day requirement, finding the week-long limit to go "beyond what the Constitution requires."

District Court Comes Down Hard

During a bench trial, the District Court for the Western District of Washington multiple shortcomings with the way Washington treated potentially incompetent detainees. Those included insufficient beds, lack of personnel, and inadequate funding, which combined to lead to delayed evaluations and sometimes significant damage to the detained.

"Our jails are not suitable places for the mentally ill to be warehoused while they wait for services," District Court Judge Marsha Pechman wrote. "Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates."

To address the state's due process violations, Judge Pechman issued a permanent injunction requiring a series of reforms, including the requirement that initial competency evaluations and mental health restoration services be provided within seven days of a court order.

No Constitutional Need for Seven-day Limit

On appeal, Washington challenged only the seven-day requirement for initial competency evaluations. While agreeing with Judge Pechman that the state "must conduct competency evaluations within a reasonable time following a court's order," the Ninth Circuit sided with the state, holding that the Due Process Clause did not impose the seven-day "temporal obligation" instated by the district court.

Under the "rule of reasonableness," pretrial detention for incompetent defendants must, at the minimum, "bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is committed." But, according to the Ninth, the remedy fashioned by the court did not "ask whether there was some reasonable relation between timing and confinement, nor did it distinguish sufficiently between the pre- and post-evaluation categories at issue."

Instead, the court simply imposed a seven-day deadline. And while seven days are "perhaps feasible," the Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the Ninth Circuit panel, it "does not constitute a bright line after which any delay crosses the constitutional Rubicon."

Thus, the court struck the seven-day limit, sending it back to the district court for reconsideration, while noting that "federal courts have often looked to a state's own policies for guidance." While the initial litigation was ongoing, Washington amended its law to set a 14-day maximum, something the court's initial ruling did not take into account.

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