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Vermont Supreme Court: Defendant Cannot be Compelled to Submit to Competency Evaluation by State’s Expert

by David Reutter

The Supreme Court of Vermont held that the State may not compel a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation conducted by a mental-health expert of the State’s choosing after a court-ordered competency evaluation by a neutral mental-health expert.

Following his arrest for second-degree murder, Christopher Sharrow’s attorney requested a competency hearing. Pursuant to 13 V.S.A. § 4814, the trial court ordered an evaluation, and the Department of Mental Health selected a neutral expert to conduct the evaluation.

The expert concluded in a May 23, 2016, report that Sharrow “is not mentally competent to stand trial for the alleged offense.” Defense counsel procured another expert to perform a competency evaluation, but there was no attempt to admit that expert’s report into the record. The State then procured its own expert and requested the trial court to order Sharrow to submit to an evaluation. The court granted the motion, and Sharrow filed an interlocutory appeal.

On appeal, the issue before the Vermont Supreme Court was whether 13 V.S.A. § 4814 gives the trial court the authority to order a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation performed by an expert retained by the State. The Court stated that the statute is unambiguous: The trial court has the authority to “order the Department of Mental Health to have the defendant examined by a psychiatrist.” The statute does not “grant the court the authority to require a defendant to submit to a competency evaluation by any other doctor,” the Court determined.

Additionally, the Court stated that, under U.S. Supreme Court case law, due process requires “that the State provide the defendant with the assistance of an independent psychiatrist” when an indigent defendant’s mental health is at issue. Tuggle v. Netherland, 516 U.S. 10 (1995). In the context of a competency hearing, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the consequences of an erroneous determination are “dire” since the defendant may be unable to effectively communicate with defense counsel, which could undermine the defendant’s ability to exercise “other rights deemed essential to a fair trial.” Cooper v. Oklahoma, 517 U.S. 348 (1996). Thus, a defendant whose competency is called into question has a constitutional right, at the State’s expense, to hire a mental-health expert to assist in the defense.

In contrast, the injury to the State of an error in evaluating a defendant’s competency is “modest.” Id. The harms to the State are simply the financial burden and frustration of the “State’s interest in the prompt disposition of criminal charges.” Id. As such, neither the Constitution nor the statute empower the trial court to order the defendant to submit to an evaluation conducted by a State-retained mental-health professional for purposes of determining competency.  

Accordingly, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s order directing Sharrow to submit to an evaluation conducted by the State’s retained mental-health expert. See: State v. Sharrow, 175 A.3d 504 (Vt. 2017). 

 

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