What is the standard for determining whether someone is competent to plead guilty?

In order to plead guilty, defendants must be sufficiently aware of the circumstances and consequences of their pleas. Otherwise, judges must reject their pleas. This is the requirement that guilty pleas be “voluntary and intelligent.” (See To plead guilty, do defendants have to understand what’s going on? and Does a judge have to confirm that the defendant committed the crime before accepting a guilty plea?)

Intertwined with the “voluntary and intelligent” standard for pleading guilty is the requirement that defendants be mentally competent. The “voluntary and intelligent” question has to do with whether the defendant actually understands the information necessary to make a reasonable decision. The competency question, on the other hand, gets at the more fundamental issue of whether he or she has the capacity to understand the proceedings. (Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993).)

The federal standard for competence to plead guilty is the same as the standard for competence to stand trial. According that standard, the defendant must have the ability to:

  • rationally understand the proceedings and facts, and
  • consult with legal counsel.

The defendant having some kind of mental disorder does not automatically mean that he or she is incompetent. Ultimately, the determination comes down to whether the defendant can make a reasoned choice.

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