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Name: People v. Shiga
Case #: B256009
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 7
Opinion Date: 11/29/2016

Defendant’s arson conviction reversed where the trial court was unaware of its discretion to deny a “gray area” defendant’s Faretta motion. Shiga set fire to a Catholic church and was charged with arson (Pen. Code, § 451.5, subd. (a)) and other offenses. Prior to trial three doctors evaluated his competence to stand trial. Two of the doctors found him competent while the third found him incompetent. After Shiga and his attorney disagreed about advancing a mental health defense, Shiga asked to represent himself. The prosecutor urged the trial court to conduct a separate evaluation of Shiga’s mental competency to represent himself. The trial court said that a decision had already been made that Shiga was competent to stand trial and it would not take a second look at that determination. It granted Shiga’s Faretta request. Shiga was convicted and appealed. Held: Reversed. A criminal defendant has a right under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to represent himself after being advised of the dangers of doing so and voluntarily electing to do so. However, the fact that a defendant is found competent to stand trial does not mean he is necessarily competent to represent himself. In Indiana v. Edwards (2008) 554 U.S. 164, the Court held the Constitution permits states to deny self-representation to “gray-area” defendants, i.e., those found competent to stand trial, but who suffer from severe mental illness such that they are not competent by themselves to conduct trial proceedings (accord People v. Johnson (2012) 53 Cal.4th 519). Here, the trial court was unaware of its discretion to separately determine whether Shiga was competent to represent himself. Further, there was sufficient evidence that Shiga may not have been able to “carry out the basic tasks needed to present the defense without the help of counsel.”

The trial court erred in failing to recognize it had discretion to order a second hearing regarding defendant’s competency to stand trial. On appeal Shiga argued the trial court was presented with enough new information during the trial to cast doubt on his competence to stand trial. Therefore, the court should have initiated a second competency hearing. The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as state law, prohibit the state from trying or convicting a criminal defendant when he is mentally incompetent. A defendant is incompetent to stand trial if, due to mental disorder or developmental disability, he is unable to understand the nature of the proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of his defense in a rational manner. Where substantial evidence raises a reasonable doubt regarding defendant’s mental competency, the trial court must hold a competency proceeding. If such a hearing has already been held, the trial court need not suspend proceedings to conduct a second competency hearing unless there is a change of circumstances or new evidence which casts doubt on the validity of the earlier finding. The record here reflects the trial court was unaware of its discretion to conduct a second competency hearing if it had a doubt regarding Shiga’s competency to stand trial. This was error.

The trial court’s errors were prejudicial per se. Some errors may result in a miscarriage of justice under the California Constitution (art. VI, § 13) because they operate to deny a criminal defendant the constitutionally required “orderly legal procedure” and involve fundamental “structural defects” in the judicial proceeding. “The record in this case demonstrates that the trial court’s failure to recognize it was within its discretion to assess defendant’s competency to represent himself, as well as to order a second competency hearing, if necessary, may have affected the protected framework in which defendant’s trial proceeded and may have resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” As there is no way to measure the prejudicial effect of the court’s error, reversal is required.

The proper remedy is to order a limited remand to conduct a retrospective determination of defendant’s competency to stand trial and/or to represent himself. On remand, the trial court must determine within 60 days whether it is feasible to assess whether Shiga was competent to stand trial and to represent himself at the time of trial. Factors relevant to this determination are: (1) the passage of time; (2) the availability of contemporaneous medical evidence; (3) statements by defendant in the trial record; and (4) the availability of individuals, both expert and non-expert, who interacted with defendant before and during trial. The burden of persuasion is on the prosecution to show by a preponderance of the evidence that such a retrospective determination is feasible. If it is not feasible to determine Shiga’s mental competence at the time of trial, then reversal of the judgment is appropriate. Should the trial court find that Shiga was competent to stand trial and to represent himself, then his remaining appellate issues shall be considered.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: