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Mental Illness And The Misdemeanor Criminal Charge

An individual may be suffering with a mental condition such that everyone “knows” he’s mentally ill. In fact, people often unkindly say he’s “crazy”. However, he is out in society and usually functioning quite well. He may be on Social Security Disability or he may just be impaired yet still able to get along most of the time.

However, because of his illness he can become involved with the police. He may act out due to his illness in such a way that he becomes a danger to himself or others. Then the police are called. Once the police come to the scene they are faced with the choice of arresting the individual or taking him into custody pursuant to Health and Safety Code 5150. Under the 5150 Section an individual can be held for up to 72 hours involuntarily in order to assess his mental state. Many times the officers either don’t choose to take the individual 5150 because they don’t recognize the mental issue or they don’t want to for various other reasons.

More often than not the individual is arrested and charged with a violation of the Penal Code. If the conduct is not overly severe than the individual, who is now a criminal defendant, is charged with a misdemeanor and not a felony. The difficult issue for the criminal defense attorney is that if the defendant is declared incompetent or insane he will be either taken into custody for evaluation or kept in custody longer than he would serve if he simply plead guilty. In addition, with a misdemeanor the help the defendant needs is rarely going to be available in today’s era of diminishing services and resources.

There isn’t an easy solution. For the criminal defense attorney he can try to get the defendant help from various community resources, refer the defendant to outside agencies, and seek private mental health care services. However, if the defendant were open to these options for treatment he probably wouldn’t be in the criminal system at all because he would have been in treatment already and controlling his actions.

The best a criminal defense attorney can do is seek to have the District Attorney recognize the non-willful nature of the defendant’s actions and dismiss the charges based on the mental illness. This often doesn’t work because the District Attorney wants the defendant to plead to something. In this case the defense attorney needs to lessen the damage to the defendant in the plea negotiations. What must not happen is that the defendant is hurt by the revelation of the mental illness or by delaying the proceedings keeping him in custody when the case could be resolved and the defendant released.

The issues involving a mentally ill misdemeanor defendant are complicated and must be handled with discretion by the criminal defense attorney. If the case isn’t handled correctly violations of the defendant’s privacy and rights can be irreparably harmed.