If you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you have certain advantages in the criminal justice system. Veterans with PTSD from combat trauma can be more likely to be arrested for criminal behavior, and it can make a big difference in how your criminal case gets handled if you have PTSD.
This article includes only a very general discussion; it is critical to obtain the services of a local attorney who has experience with criminal law, and ideally, who has previously worked with veterans and with individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. To locate an attorney to help you defend yourself against criminal charges, use our attorney database.
If you've already bee convicted, read Nolo's article on help for veterans with PTSD who've been convicted of a crime.
Most criminal cases are resolved by plea agreements. This means you do not have a trial; instead, the prosecutor and your defense attorney work out a deal. You agree to plead guilty and in return, you do something for the prosecutor. This could mean agreeing to plead guilty to a lesser crime than you were charged with, receiving a shorter jail term, and other options.
When your lawyer is negotiating a plea agreement for you, and especially when you have been charged with a non-violent crime, the fact that you have PTSD can work in your favor. In some cases, you could be ordered to be on parole and receive in-patient treatment rather than go to prison. In that case, you might even have the option to have the offense “expunged” (meaning, erased) from your record, or perhaps the prosecutor will agree to charge you for a less serious offense than the one you were arrested for.
More rarely, a prosecutor may agree to drop the charges altogether. This might occur if you don’t have a criminal record, your criminal conduct was out of character, the crime you committed was not violent, and you have admitted your fault and are receiving treatment.
If your lawyer and the prosecutor aren’t able to reach a plea agreement or the plea agreement is not acceptable to you, then your case will go to trial. In this case, the fact that you have post-traumatic stress disorder might be used as a defense at trial.
For example, if you have a diagnosis of PTSD and you mistakenly fired a gun at someone under the mistaken belief that you were in a war zone, then your PTSD can be used to help you in defending yourself in court. There are a couple different defenses your attorney can use.
First, however, your lawyer must be able to prove that you legitimately suffer from the disorder. (See Nolo's article about getting SC disability compensation for PTSD for a discussion about how to identify whether you have PTSD.) Likewise, the crime you committed must somehow be linked to your PTSD; otherwise your lawyer can’t legitimately raise a PTSD defense while defending you.
In most states, you can be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Generally, this means your lawyer must prove not that you are insane but that you didn’t understand that your actions were wrong, and it primarily applies to violent crimes. The law varies a great deal by state, so it is important to consult with a local attorney.
If the insanity defense is successfully used in your case and you are found not guilty due to insanity, this does not mean you will be free to go home. In most cases, you will be sent to a mental health institution for the duration of your sentence.
If your PTSD symptoms caused you to truly believe you were in danger and needed to act to protect your life, you might sometimes be let off on the basis of self-defense. But this will work only if your lawyer can prove that you legitimately believed you were being attacked when you acted violently.
If you are convicted, being a veteran with a diagnosis of PTSD can help you appeal the conviction, get a reduced sentence, or be eligible for early parole. Read Nolo's article on veterans suffering from PTSD who are convicted of crimes to learn more.
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