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California Supreme Court: Competence Hearing Required When Formerly Incompetent Defendant Quits Taking Psychotropic Medication and Exhibits Signs of Incompetence

by David Reutter

The Supreme Court of California ruled that “when a formerly incompetent defendant has been restored to competence solely or primarily through administration of medication, evidence that the defendant is no longer taking his medication and is again exhibiting signs of incompetence” a “formal investigation before a trial may proceed” is required.

Domingo Rodas was charged with three counts of murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing homeless men in Los Angeles in July and August 2009. Shortly before trial began in 2012, the question of whether Rodas was competent to stand trial was raised. He was subsequently found incompetent by the trial court.

The record showed Rodas had a long psychiatric history that included being released from the military for psychiatric reasons and being found incompetent to stand trial in a prior case and committed to a psychiatric hospital. In a subsequent case, he was found competent to stand trial on burglary charges and convicted. At the end of his prison sentence in 1988, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoid type, and schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse.

In late 2012, Rodas was found to show symptoms of schizophrenia, including “tangential and circumstantial thought processes, and disorganized non-sensical speech.” Patton State Hospital determined that, “There are no effective alternatives to treatment with antipsychotic medication.” 

Rodas was certified as competent on April 18, 2013. The report stated that it was “important that [Rodas] remain on his medication for his own personal benefit and to enable him to be certified” as competent to stand trial.

Jury selection for Rodas’ trial began in March 2014. At that time, his defense counsel advised the court that her conversations with Rodas led her to doubt his competence to stand trial. The trial court conducted a colloquy with Rodas, and it found him competent because it was “impressed with his clarity of speech and apparent clarity of reasoning in addressing the court.”

Trial proceeded, and Rodas, against counsel’s advice, testified. He was convicted on all charges, and that result was affirmed on appeal. The California Supreme Court granted review to determine if error occurred by failing to suspend the trial after counsel raised questions about Rodas’ competence.

It is well settled that a trial court may rely on its findings after conducting a competency hearing unless it is “presented with a substantial change of circumstances or with new evidence casting serious doubt on the validity of that finding.” People v. Jones, (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1115.

The high court noted that when Rodas was found incompetent in the prior conviction, he spoke in “word salad.” This same type of “nonsensical” speech was noted by doctors at Patton State Hospital, and counsel stated that same type of speech made her doubt his competency at the 2014 trial. It also noted that during the colloquy, Rodas said he had quit taking his medication for some time. Counsel feared him taking the stand because she did not know “what’s going to come out of his mouth.” While on the stand, he was so incoherent and paranoid in his statements that the trial court struck his testimony as irrelevant.

Where the evidence of competence is conflicting, “[r]esolution must await expert examination and the opportunity for a full evidentiary hearing.” People v. Lightsey, (2012) 54 Cal.4th 668. Rodas’ “demeanor and responses supplied no basis for dispensing with further inquiry,” the Court wrote. Under the circumstances of the case, the trial court was required to suspend the proceedings and launch a formal investigation to resolve the question of competency.

Accordingly, as it is not possible to resolve the issue through a retrospective hearing, the Court reversed the judgment of conviction and instructed that Rodas may be retried if found competent to stand trial. See: People v. Rodas, 429 P.3d 1122 (Cal. 2018). 

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