Monday, May 26, 2014

Case o' The Week: Defendant trips on "high bar" - Garza and Sua Sponte Competency Referrals

   Diabetes eating the defendant's brain, diagnosed anxiety disorder, and admitted failure to understand the trial proceedings. Competent?
 Competent enough.
United States v. Garza, 2014 WL 2058088 (9th Cir. May 20, 2014), decision available here.

Hon. Richard C. Tallman
Players: Decision by Judge Tallman, joined by Judges Ikuta and DJ O’Connell. Hard-fought appeal by ED Cal AFPD Carolyn Wiggin.

Facts: Garza was charged with one count of receipt or distribution of child porn, and another of possession. Id. at *1. His lawyer hired a psychologist who prepared a competency report. Id. That psych diagnosed Garza with anxiety, and dementia caused by uncontrolled diabetes; he concluded that Garza was incompetent. Id. Garza was sent to the BOP for an eval: Dr. Lisa Hope concluded Garza suffered from anxiety disorder, did not suffer from dementia, and was competent to go to trial. Id. After Dr. Hope’s report, the competency issue was dropped and the case went to trial. Id. at *2. Garza testified, explained that he was mentally disabled, and complained that diabetes was eating his brain. Id. Garza denied understanding the proceedings. Id. Defense counsel did not move to declare Garza incompetent. Id. Garza was convicted – and before imposing twenty years the district court mused that Garza has been “playing possum” during his testimony. Id.

Issue(s): “[T]he 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 . . . Sometimes ‘adequate’ means that the district court must sua sponte consider a defendant’s competency. The question is whether this is one of those times. Garza says yes. He argues that the district court plainly erred by failing to sua sponte hold a competency hearing.” Id. at *3.

Held: “There was no plain error here because no reasonable judge would harbor a genuine doubt about Garza’s competency; no reasonable judge would harbor a reasonable doubt about Garza’s competency because there was not substantial evidence; there was not substantial evidence because Garza’s medical history, his behavior in and out of trial, and his defense counsel’s statements do not reveal a defendant incapable of either understanding the nature of the proceedings against him or assisting in his defense.” Id. at *7 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

Of Note: Judge Tallman briefly discusses an interesting challenge by Garza: if a defendant is committed for a competency evaluation under Section 4247, is the defendant then entitled to a competency hearing upon return from the BOP? Id. at *7. Makes sense, and Judge Talmman concedes that his argument is “not without textual support.” Id. Unfortunately, the answer is, “no:” “A § 4247 examination does not automatically entitle a defendant to a hearing.” Id.

How to Use: The “substantial evidence” standard applies to the issue of whether a district court erred by not making a competency determination sua sponte. This standard is not clearly defined and “not easily applied.” Id. at *3. The bulk of the Garza decision discusses this standard (“the bar is clearly high”), works through test and provides “general guidelines.” Id. at *3-*5. These “rough guidelines” are new law, and are worth review if you represent a client with competency issues (and may be of particular importance for capital habeas work).
For Further Reading: In three short weeks, the timekeeping system for every Defender employee will be significantly re-tooled in preparation for the A.O.’s fall Work Measurement Study. To get ready for this important June 16 “go live” date, and to get the new federal defenderData task codes, Defender staff should grab the collection of materials and hit the training links here: 

Image of the Honorable Richard C. Tallman from
Image of the “dData” icon from

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender ND Cal . Website at


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