In a decision handed down on December 30, the Idaho Court of Appeals vacated a conviction for robbery in State vs Faron Hawkins because the district judge did not sua sponte (on his own without a motion from the defendant) order a mental health evaluation during the trial of the case. Hawkins had contacted an FBI agent concerning his fear for the safety of his sons who were in prison in Colorado. The agent told Hawkins he could not help, but offered to put him in touch with another agent. The following day Hawkins robbed a bank in Portland, and an employee identified him. The FBI agent he had contacted tried to locate Hawkins without success, and 6 months or so later he robbed another bank, this time in Boise. As he left the bank he told tellers his name and said the robbery was "all because of George Calley (the FBI agent)."  

Fast forward to trial. Hawkins has proceeded pro se, but a public defender is acting as standby counsel. Hawkins and the public defender do not get along. Hawkins fires him, then later asks that the PD argue his post trial motions – including a motion for a new trial because Hawkins says he was delusional. At the hearing the PD says that if he was going to argue the motion, he would have to argue that it lacked merit. So the lawyer says his client is not delusional (impliedly) and the court orders a mental evaluation for the purpose of sentencing – not for the purpose of determining whether the Defendant could have assisted in his own defense at trial.  

The appeals court says that there were plenty of reasons for the trial judge to have ordered – before trial or during – a mental status evaluation, to see if Hawkins could assist in his own defense. Case reversed, start all over folks.  The decision as to whether to order the mental status evaluation is one of discretion as to the trial court, and here, there was an abuse of discretion when viewed in the totality of Mr. Hawkins’ bizarre behavior and representations (for example, he claims the government implanted a chip in his ear and controlled his thoughts, he claims he worked for the CIA). 

Two things I take away from this case:  

First – if the defendant acts like he has mental issues, the lawyers and judges need to take a time out and get an evaluation. Strange behavior comes from somewhere and everybody needs to know where before spending days in trial. Stop the bus and get a psych eval!

Second – the US Supreme Court held that the test is different to determine competency when the defendant is represented as opposed to proceeding without counsel. To spare all the details, the test is understandably more rigorous if the defendant is pro se. So the judge has to be more attuned to the bizarre behavior and make the tough call. That is why he/she has the black robe and the impossible hours and caseload. If the court fails to order the evaluation, the right to due process is violated that the case gets reversed.

And this says nothing about the conduct of the defendant’s advocate. We are advocates – and the mentally ill make that job extremely tough. Still, we have to work on their behalf. Make their argument. It might be a winner!

Someone needed to argue this guy’s rights. Thankfully on appeal that happened. Nicely done Dennis Benjamin – Appellate Superlawyer!

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