Mediana v. California
112 S. Ct. 2572 (1992)

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

It is well established that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the criminal prosecution of a defendant who is not competent to stand trial. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975); Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966). The issue in this case is whether the Due Process Clause permits a State to require a defendant who alleges incompetence to stand trial to bear the burden of proving so by a preponderance of the evidence.


In 1984, petitioner Teofilo Medina, Jr. stole a gun from a pawn shop in Santa Ana, California. In the weeks that followed, he held up two gas stations, a drive-in dairy, and a market, murdered three employees of those establishments, attempted to rob a fourth employee, and shot at two passersby who attempted to follow his getaway car. Petitioner was apprehended less than one month after his crime spree began and was charged with a number of criminal offenses, including three counts of first-degree murder. Before trial, petitioner's counsel moved for a competency hearing under Cal. Pen. Code Ann. 1368 (West 1982), on the ground that he was unsure whether petitioner had the ability to participate in the criminal proceedings against him.

Under California law, "[a] person cannot be tried or adjudged to punishment while such person is mentally incompetent.'' Cal. Pen. Code Ann. 1367 (West 1982). A defendant is mentally incompetent "if, as a result of mental disorder or developmental disability, the defendant is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner.'' Ibid. The statute establishes a presumption that the defendant is competent, and the party claiming incompetence bears the burden of proving that the defendant is incompetent by a preponderance of the evidence. 1369(f) ("It shall be presumed that the defendant is mentally competent unless it is proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is mentally incompetent'').

The trial court granted the motion for a hearing and the preliminary issue of petitioner's competence to stand trial was tried to a jury. Over the course of the six-day hearing, in addition to lay testimony, the jury heard conflicting expert testimony about petitioner's mental condition. The Supreme Court of California gives this summary: "Dr. Gold, a psychiatrist who knew defendant while he was in the Arizona prison system, testified that defendant was a paranoid schizophrenic and was incompetent to assist his attorney at trial. Dr. Echeandia, a clinical psychologist at the Orange County jail, doubted the accuracy of the schizophrenia diagnosis, and could not express an opinion on defendant's competence to stand trial. Dr. Sharma, a psychiatrist, likewise expressed doubts regarding the schizophrenia diagnosis and leaned toward a finding of competence. Dr. Pierce, a psychologist, believed defendant was schizophrenic, with impaired memory and hallucinations, but nevertheless was competent to stand trial. Dr. Sakurai, a jail psychiatrist, opined that although defendant suffered from depression, he was competent, and that he may have been malingering. Dr. Sheffield, who treated defendant for knife wounds he incurred in jail, could give no opinion on the competency issue.'' 51 Cal. 3d 870, 880 (1990). During the competency hearing, petitioner engaged in several verbal and physical outbursts. On one of these occasions, he overturned the counsel table.

The trial court instructed the jury in accordance with 1369(f) that "the defendant is presumed to be mentally competent and he has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he is mentally incompetent as a result of mental disorder or developmental disability.'' The jury found petitioner competent to stand trial. A new jury was impanelled for the criminal trial, and petitioner entered pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. At the conclusion of the guilt phase, petitioner was found guilty of all three counts of first-degree murder and a number of lesser offenses. He moved to withdraw his insanity plea, and the trial court granted the motion. Two days later, however, petitioner moved to reinstate his insanity plea. Although his counsel expressed the view that reinstatement of the insanity plea was "tactically unsound,'' the trial court granted petitioner's motion. A sanity hearing was held, and the jury found that petitioner was sane at the time of the offenses. At the penalty phase, the jury found that the murders were premeditated and deliberate, and returned a verdict of death. The trial court imposed the death penalty for the murder convictions, and sentenced petitioner to a prison term for the remaining offenses.

On direct appeal to the California Supreme Court, petitioner did not challenge the standard of proof set forth in 1369(f), but argued that the statute violated his right to due process by placing the burden of proof on him to establish that he was not competent to stand trial. In addition, he argued that 1369(f) violates due process by establishing a presumption that a defendant is competent to stand trial unless proven otherwise. The court rejected both of these contentions. Relying upon our decision in Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790 (1952), which rejected a due process challenge to an Oregon statute that required a criminal defendant to prove the defense of insanity beyond a reasonable doubt, the court observed that "the states ordinarily have great latitude to decide the proper placement of proof burdens.'' 51 Cal. 3d, at 884. In its view, 1369(f) "does not subject the defendant to hardship or oppression,'' because "one might reasonably expect that the defendant and his counsel would have better access than the People to the facts relevant to the court's competency inquiry.'' Id., at 885. The court also rejected petitioner's argument that it is "irrational'' to retain a presumption of competence after sufficient doubt has arisen as to a defendant's competence to warrant a hearing, and "decline[d] to hold as a matter of due process that such a presumption must be treated as a mere presumption affecting the burden of production, which disappears merely because a preliminary, often undefined and indefinite, 'doubt' has arisen that justifies further inquiry into the matter.'' Id., at 885. We granted certiorari and now affirm.


Petitioner argues that our decision in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976), provides the proper analytical framework for determining whether California's allocation of the burden of proof in competency hearings comports with due process. We disagree. In Mathews, we articulated a three-factor test for evaluating procedural due process claims which requires a court to consider "[f]irst, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.'' Id., at 335. In our view, the Mathews balancing test does not provide the appropriate framework for assessing the validity of state procedural rules which, like the one at bar, are part of the criminal process....

The proper analytical approach, and the one that we adopt here, is that set forth in Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977), which was decided one year after Mathews. In Patterson, we rejected a due process challenge to a New York law which placed on a criminal defendant the burden of proving the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance. Rather than relying upon the Mathews balancing test, however, we reasoned that a narrower inquiry was more appropriate: "It goes without saying that preventing and dealing with crime is much more the business of the States than it is of the Federal Government, Irvine v. California, 347 U.S. 128 (1954) (plurality opinion), and that we should not lightly construe the Constitution so as to intrude upon the administration of justice by the individual States. Among other things, it is normally 'within the power of the State to regulate procedures under which its laws are carried out, including the burden of producing evidence and the burden of persuasion,' and its decision in this regard is not subject to proscription under the Due Process Clause unless 'it offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' ''...

Based on our review of the historical treatment of the burden of proof in competency proceedings, the operation of the challenged rule, and our precedents, we cannot say that the allocation of the burden of proof to a criminal defendant to prove incompetence "offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.'' Patterson v. New York, supra, 432 U.S., at 202....

Under California law, the allocation of the burden of proof to the defendant will affect competency determinations only in a narrow class of cases where the evidence is in equipoise; that is, where the evidence that a defendant is competent is just as strong as the evidence that he is incompetent. Our cases recognize that a defendant has a constitutional right "not to be tried while legally incompetent,'' and that a State's "failure to observe procedures adequate to protect a defendant's right not to be tried or convicted while incompetent to stand trial deprives him of his due process right to a fair trial.'' Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S., at 172. Once a State provides a defendant access to procedures for making a competency evaluation, however, we perceive no basis for holding that due process further requires the State to assume the burden of vindicating the defendant's constitutional right by persuading the trier of fact that the defendant is competent to stand trial.

Petitioner relies upon federal and state-court decisions which have said that the allocation of the burden of proof to the defendant in these circumstances is inconsistent with the rule of Pate v. Robinson, supra, 383 U.S., at 384, where we held that a defendant whose competence is in doubt cannot be deemed to have waived his right to a competency hearing. Because "'it is contradictory to argue that a defendant may be incompetent, and yet knowingly or intelligently "waive'' his right to have the court determine his capacity to stand trial,' '' it has been said that it is also "contradictory to argue that a defendant who may be incompetent should be presumed to possess sufficient intelligence that he will be able to adduce evidence of his incompetency which might otherwise be within his grasp.'' United States v. DiGilio, [538 F.2d 972, 988 (CA3 1976), cert. denied, 429 U.S. 1038 (1977), quoting Pate v. Robinson, supra, 383 U.S. at 384].

In our view, the question whether a defendant whose competence is in doubt may waive his right to a competency hearing is quite different from the question whether the burden of proof may be placed on the defendant once a hearing is held. The rule announced in Pate was driven by our concern that it is impossible to say whether a defendant whose competence is in doubt has made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his right to a competency hearing. Once a competency hearing is held, however, the defendant is entitled to the assistance of counsel, and psychiatric evidence is brought to bear on the question of the defendant's mental condition. Although an impaired defendant might be limited in his ability to assist counsel in demonstrating incompetence, the defendant's inability to assist counsel can, in and of itself, constitute probative evidence of incompetence, and defense counsel will often have the best-informed view of the defendant's ability to participate in his defense. While reasonable minds may differ as to the wisdom of placing the burden of proof on the defendant in these circumstances, we believe that a State may take such factors into account in making judgments as to the allocation of the burden of proof, and we see no basis for concluding that placing the burden on the defendant violates the principle approved in Pate.

Petitioner argues that psychiatry is an inexact science, and that placing the burden of proof on the defendant violates due process because it requires the defendant to "bear the risk of being forced to stand trial as a result of an erroneous finding of competency.''... Consistent with our precedents, it is enough that the State affords the criminal defendant on whose behalf a plea of incompetence is asserted a reasonable opportunity to demonstrate that he is not competent to stand trial.

Petitioner further contends that the burden of proof should be placed on the State because we have allocated the burden to the State on a variety of other issues that implicate a criminal defendant's constitutional rights. The decisions upon which petitioner relies, however, do not control the result here, because they involved situations where the government sought to introduce inculpatory evidence obtained by virtue of a waiver of, or in violation of, a defendant's constitutional rights. In such circumstances, allocating the burden of proof to the government furthers the objective of "deterring lawless conduct by police and prosecution.'' No such purpose is served by allocating the burden of proof to the government in a competency hearing.

In light of our determination that the allocation of the burden of proof to the defendant does not offend due process, it is not difficult to dispose of petitioner's challenge to the presumption of competence imposed by 1369(f). Under California law, a defendant is required to make a threshold showing of incompetence before a hearing is required and, at the hearing, the defendant may be prevented from making decisions that are normally left to the discretion of a competent defendant. Petitioner argues that, once the trial court has expressed a doubt as to the defendant's competence, a hearing is held, and the defendant is deprived of his right to make determinations reserved to competent persons, it is irrational to retain the presumption that the defendant is competent.

In rejecting this contention below, the California Supreme Court observed that "[t]he primary significance of the presumption of competence is to place on defendant (or the People, if they contest his competence) the burden of rebutting it'' and that, "[b]y its terms, the presumption of competence is one which affects the burden of proof.'' 51 Cal. 3d, at 885. We see no reason to disturb the California Supreme Court's conclusion that, in essence, the challenged presumption is a restatement of the burden of proof, and it follows from what we have said that the presumption does not violate the Due Process Clause....

The judgment of the Supreme Court of California is affirmed.

Justice O'CONNOR, with whom Justice SOUTER joins, concurring in the judgment.

I concur in the judgment of the Court, but I reject its intimation that the balancing of equities is inappropriate in evaluating whether state criminal procedures amount to due process.... The balancing of equities that Mathews v. Eldridge outlines remains a useful guide in due process cases....

In determining whether the placement of the burden of proof is fundamentally unfair, relevant considerations include: whether the Government has superior access to evidence; whether the defendant is capable of aiding in the garnering and evaluation of evidence on the matter to be proved; and whether placing the burden of proof on the Government is necessary to help enforce a further right, such as the right to be presumed innocent, the right to be free from self-incrimination, or the right to be tried while competent.

After balancing the equities in this case, I agree with the Court that the burden of proof may constitutionally rest on the defendant. As the dissent points out, the competency determination is based largely on the testimony of psychiatrists. The main concern of the prosecution, of course, is that a defendant will feign incompetence in order to avoid trial. If the burden of proving competence rests on the Government, a defendant will have less incentive to cooperate in psychiatric investigations, because an inconclusive examination will benefit the defense, not the prosecution. A defendant may also be less cooperative in making available friends or family who might have information about the defendant's mental state. States may therefore decide that a more complete picture of a defendant's competence will be obtained if the defense has the incentive to produce all the evidence in its possession. The potentially greater overall access to information provided by placing the burden of proof on the defense may outweigh the danger that, in close cases, a marginally incompetent defendant is brought to trial. Unlike the requirement of a hearing or a psychiatric examination, placing the burden of proof on the Government will not necessarily increase the reliability of the proceedings. The equities here, then, do not weigh so much in petitioner's favor as to rebut the presumption of constitutionality that the historical toleration of procedural variation creates.

As the Court points out, the other cases in which we have placed the burden of proof on the government are distinguishable. See Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157 (1986) (burden of proof on Government to show waiver of rights under Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)); Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 444-445, n.5 (1984) (burden on Government to show inevitable discovery of evidence obtained by unlawful means); United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 177-178, n.14 (1974) (burden on Government to show voluntariness of consent to search); Lego v. Twomey, 404 U.S. 477, 489 (1972) (burden on Government to show voluntariness of confession). In each of these cases, the Government's burden of proof accords with its investigatory responsibilities. Before obtaining a confession, the Government is required to ensure that the confession is given voluntarily. Before searching a private area without a warrant, the Government is generally required to ensure that the owner consents to the search. The Government has no parallel responsibility to gather evidence of a defendant's competence.

Justice BLACKMUN, with whom Justice STEVENS joins, dissenting.

Teofilo Medina, Jr., may have been mentally incompetent when the State of California convicted him and sentenced him to death. One psychiatrist testified he was incompetent. Another psychiatrist and a psychologist testified he was not. Several other experts testified but did not express an opinion on competence. Instructed to presume that petitioner Medina was competent, the jury returned a finding of competence. For all we know, the jury was entirely undecided. I do not believe a Constitution that forbids the trial and conviction of an incompetent person tolerates the trial and conviction of a person about whom the evidence of competency is so equivocal and unclear. I dissent....

As an initial matter, I believe the Court's approach to this case effectively asks and answers the wrong doctrinal question. Following the lead of the parties, the Court mistakenly frames its inquiry in terms of whether to apply a standard it takes to be derived from language in Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977), or a standard based on the functional balancing approach of Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976). The Court is not put to such a choice. Under Drope and Pate, it need decide only whether a procedure imposing the burden of proof upon the defendant is "adequate'' to protect the constitutional prohibition against trial of incompetent persons.

The Court, however, chooses the Patterson path, announcing that there is no violation of due process unless placing the burden of proof of incompetency upon the defendant "'offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.' '' Separating the primary right (the right not to be tried while incompetent) from the subsidiary right (the right not to bear the burden of proof of incompetency), the Court acknowledges the primary right to be fundamental in "our common-law heritage,'' but determines the subsidiary right to be without a "settled tradition'' deserving of constitutional protection. This approach is mistaken, because it severs two integrally related procedural rights that cannot be examined meaningfully in isolation. The protections of the Due Process Clause, to borrow the second Justice Harlan's words, are simply not "a series of isolated points pricked'' out in terms of their most specific level of historic generality. Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497 (1961) (dissenting opinion). Had the Court taken the same historical-categorical approach in Pate and Drope, it would not have recognized that a defendant has a right to a competency hearing, for in neither of those cases was there any showing that the mere denial of a hearing where there is doubt about competency offended any deeply rooted traditions of the American people.

In all events, I do not interpret the Court's reliance on Patterson to undermine the basic balancing of the government's interests against the individual's interest that is germane to any due process inquiry. While unwilling to discount the force of tradition and history, the Court in Patterson did not adopt an exclusively tradition-based approach to due process analysis. Relying on Morrison v. California, 291 U.S. 82 (1934), the Court in Patterson looked to the "convenience'' to the government and "hardship or oppression'' to the defendant in forming its allocation of the burden of proof. 432 U.S., at 203, n.9, and 210. "'The decisions are manifold that within limits of reason and fairness the burden of proof may be lifted from the state in criminal prosecutions and cast on a defendant. The limits are in substance these, that the state shall have proved enough to make it just for the defendant to be required to repel what has been proved with excuse or explanation, or at least that upon a balancing of convenience or of the opportunities for knowledge the shifting of the burden will be found to be an aid to the accuser without subjecting the accused to hardship or oppression. Cf. Wigmore, Evidence, Vol. 5, 2486, 2512, and cases cited.' '' Id., at 203, n.9, quoting Morrison v. California, 291 U.S., at 88-89....

The Court suggests that "defense counsel will often have the best-informed view of the defendant's ability to participate in his defense.'' There are at least three good reasons, however, to doubt the Court's confidence. First, while the defendant is in custody, the State itself obviously has the most direct, unfettered access to him and is in the best position to observe his behavior. In the present case, Medina was held before trial in the Orange County jail system for more than a year and a half prior to his competency hearing. During the months immediately preceding the competency hearing, he was placed several times for extended periods in a padded cell for treatment and observation by prison psychiatric personnel. While Medina was in the padded cell, prison personnel observed his behavior every 15 minutes.

Second, a competency determination is primarily a medical and psychiatric determination. Competency determinations by and large turn on the testimony of psychiatric experts, not lawyers.... While the testimony of psychiatric experts may be far from infallible, it is the experts and not the lawyers who are credited as the "best-informed,'' and most able to gauge a defendant's ability to understand and participate in the legal proceedings affecting him.

Third, even assuming that defense counsel has the "best-informed view'' of the defendant's competency, the lawyer's view will likely have no outlet in, or effect on, the competency determination. Unlike the testimony of medical specialists or lay witnesses, the testimony of defense counsel is far more likely to be discounted by the factfinder as self-interested and biased. Defense counsel may also be discouraged in the first place from testifying for fear of abrogating an ethical responsibility or the attorney-client privilege. By way of example from the case at hand, it should come as little surprise that neither of Medina's two attorneys was among the dozens of persons testifying during the six days of competency proceedings in this case.

Like many psychological inquiries, competency evaluations are "in the present state of the mental sciences ... at best a hazardous guess however conscientious.'' Solesbee v. Balkcom, 339 U.S., at 23 (Frankfurter, J., dissenting). This unavoidable uncertainty expands the range of cases where the factfinder will conclude the evidence is in equipoise. The Court, however, dismisses this concern on grounds that "'[d]ue process does not require that every conceivable step be taken, at whatever cost, to eliminate the possibility of convicting an innocent person.' '' Yet surely the Due Process Clause requires some conceivable steps be taken to eliminate the risk of erroneous convictions. I search in vain for any guiding principle in the Court's analysis that determines when the risk of a wrongful conviction happens to be acceptable and when it does not.

The allocation of the burden of proof reflects a societal judgment about how the risk of error should be distributed between litigants.... "The individual should not be asked to share equally with society the risk of error when the possible injury to the individual is significantly greater than any possible harm to the state.'' Addington v. Texas, [441 U.S. 418, 427 (1979)]. The costs to the State of bearing the burden of proof of competency are not at all prohibitive. The Court acknowledges that several States already bear the burden, and that the allocation of the burden of proof will make a difference "only in a narrow class of cases where the evidence is in equipoise.'' In those few difficult cases, the State should bear the burden of remitting the defendant for further psychological observation to ensure that he is competent to defend himself....



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