Friday, March 23, 2007

People v. Jenan (Cal. Ct. App. - March 23, 2007)

What exactly does it take before we call you a nut job? Or, in legalese, before we're convinced that you're insufficiently competent to handle or understand your own defense that we appoint someone to examine you?

Usually, I know the answer to that question, but after reading this case, I recognized that I'm not entirely sure what the actual answer is. In the typical case, the potentially "incompetent" defendant is too psychotic, drugged up, injured, or simply out of it to understand. But that's not the case here.

The defendants here are instead potentially "incompetent" because they're simply nutty: they are articulate and "smart" (in a way, I guess) and even know a lot about "the law" -- or at least the law in Bizzaroland. Their problem is that they're one of these group of (ever-increasing) nutballs who've been convinced (or who have convinced themselves) that they can defend themselves in court with any number of absurd legal theories (their own "sovereignty" or "abatement" or whatever) that simply bear no reference to what the actual law is anywhere on this planet. In other words, they're smart and articulate and intelligent enough to defend themselves, but the actual content of their legal beliefs gets in the way of their defense. And hence instead of actually saying anything that's helpful, they just say stupid stuff that makes utterly no sense.

Does that make a defendant incompetent? I don't know. Justice Gomes thinks it does; or, at least, that it requires a mental examination. But what's that gonna do? These guys aren't insane or incompetent in any way that I think comports with anything in the DSM. Rather, it's more like an otherwise intelligent person who currently believes -- for whatever reason -- that the law is X even though anyone (even a moron) with any sort of legal training would realize that the law is clearly not X and is instead Y.

For example, what if I -- an otherwise bright person -- were to suddenly become convinced that the 17th Amendment granted me ownership of every red Lexus in the United States. Sure, everyone else reads the 17th Amendment as merely concerned with the qualifications of Senators and the like. But I've got a legal theory that I'm totally excited to expound on why this means that I own all the red cars in California. But, shocker of shockers, no one else agrees with me. So when I'm criminally charged with stealing a red Lexus, and I can't find a lawyer who shares my nutso reading of the 17th Amendment, I represent myself and drone on about what the Framers really meant by "Senator" was an internal combustion engine, that "two" was in the old days when automobiles weren't that numerous, but in the modern era I'm entitled to all the red cars and not merely two, etc. etc. I'm talking English and citing cases and understand precedent and the like, so I am "competent" in a way. But the actual content of my "defense" and thoughts are utterly absurd.

Does that make me incompetent? In a way, I am incompetent -- I can't actually help myself, since my ideas are so stupid that my insisted articulation of them only hurts me. But how is that any different from someone who believes (absurdly) that the jury won't find them guilty even though every netural person would realize that the jury's indisputably going to convict?

So, in the end, I'm not really sure at all that I even know what it means to be incompetent. At least when, as here, the defendants seem to have intact mental processes and yet those processes lead to results that we all would clearly recognize as utterly irrational. And yet, clearly, while I'm hesitant to call say that someone is incompetent merely because I disagree with, say, their interpretation of legal precedent, at the same time I am utterly convinced that these defendants here are "incompetent" to defend themselves given their nutball beliefs about how best to do so. And I'm sufficiently worried about convicting innocent people that this is a problem for me.

Obviously one way to avoid this is simply not to let people defend themselves, and I think there's something to that -- even though there's a whole lot on the other side as well. But, in general, especially after reading this case, I'm still somewhat at a loss both as to the type of legal "competence" we require as well as how we should (and/or do) measure it. Any solution or definition I come up with seems like it's got problems.

In short, at least in dealing with nutballs, I guess I'm convinced that there are only hard questions, and for sure that there are no easy answers. Oh well. At least reading the first dozen pages of the case made me think: "However insane I ever become, hopefully I'll never be this insane." Or, more accurately, "However distorted my personal view of precedent, at least I'm not this big of a nutjob."

So I got that going for me. Which is nice.