There are times when a criminal defense attorney asks for a Rule 11 evaluation
of his client. Under Rule 11 of the Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure,
the evaluation can be requested when there is a good faith basis to question:
- Whether the defendant can understand the nature of the proceedings against him; or
- Whether the defendant is able to assist his attorney in his defense.
There is no question that there are a lot of people in Phoenix’s
jail and prison systems that have serious mental illness. Many would argue
that our prison system has become a
de facto mental health facility. Although I think there is merit to this point,
I will save my social commentary for another forum where my SEO manager
doesn’t get so frustrated with my rambling muses.
Understanding the Nature of the Proceedings
In a very quick and limited examination process, the evaluator typically
asks the defendant if they understand what a prosecutor does, what a judge
does, and what the criminal defense attorney does. They are asked about
what a plea bargain is, what a trial is, and what a jury does.
Let’s face it; almost everybody has watched Law and Order or some
other television legal drama. These questions are so basic that anyone
who has watched more than five minutes of television knows the answers
to these very basic questions about the criminal justice system.
While I have a passion for the legal system, I have utter contempt for
this process and refer to the evaluation’s ability to measure competence
as the “Russet Potato Standard.” Why? – Because most
Russet Potatoes could answer these questions. It’s a sad commentary
on the system that even people who are clearly mentally ill and not understanding
what’s happening around them are found to be competent and fit to
Being Able to Assist Your Criminal Defense Lawyer
The second prong of the Rule 11 evaluation process is even more troubling
as it is the evaluator and not the attorney who decides if a defendant
can assist in his own defense. I’m sorry, how would someone else
know based on extremely limited interaction with my client if they can
assist in their own defense? It’s silly.
There are some defendants who are truly incompetent and others who have
ulterior motives to be part of the Rule 11 court evaluation process. Some
want to delay their cases, some just have bad attitudes, and some are
hoping that they can fake it enough to get some antipsychotic meds to
take the edge off of daily jail life.
Can Rule 11 Evaluations be Helpful If You are Ultimately Found Competent?
The short answer is “sometimes.” I have clients who have mental
health issues that are not so debilitating that they are rendered incompetent.
I remember one client from years ago who always wore red pants and danced
on street corners as he rapped totally nonsensical lyrics. He even tried
to legally change his name to J. Daddy Red Pants.
While J Daddy was found competent, it was clear that he had substantial
issues that we were able to use as mitigating circumstances in his defense.
Ultimately, the prosecutor and court had sympathy for him once they saw
a video of him (and heard his voice).
Going to the extra mile for J Daddy made all the difference in his case.
He got the help he needed and no longer wears red pants. Sometimes criminal
defense attorneys need to take an unconventional approach for unconventional clients.