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Criminal Prosecution and the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court

As a criminal defense lawyer, I am faced with questions, concerns and problems that affect those with mental illness on a routine basis. Individuals facing criminal prosecution for allegedly committing unlawfully acts, find themselves in a very stressful time period, those defendants that suffers from mental illness and are facing criminal prosecution can have setbacks that are life threatening because of the stressful period they are now enduring. When those inflicted by mental illness are arrested, many times their mental illness magnifies and exacerbates the situation, so that working with them as a lawyer can be challenging, not because of their illness, but because trying to explain the Florida laws to them and many times their family seems “unrealistic” in their mind. The repeated words of the mentally ill and their family often times are but “he or she is already suffering enough;” or “he or she cannot be prosecuted because he or she did not know what they were doing, they are sick.” So, what are the facts about Palm Beach County Mental Health Court? What are the facts about arguing diminished capacity at the time of the alleged crime?

First of all, the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court has the same exact powers that exist in every other felony courtroom in Palm Beach County, FL. This means that yes those suffering mental illness can be sent to Prison. It also means that “yes” if you suffer from mental illness, you can be sentenced to a term of felony probation with all the standard conditions, like random drug testing and all the special conditions, like being supervised in taking your prescribed medication for your inflicted mental illness. Finally, it also means that if one suffering from mental illness is declared insane by the courts, that person can be sent to a mental hospital for a term of their natural life. Statistics show that of about the 55,000 arrest per year in Palm Beach County, FL only about 15 people are declared mentally insane and placed involuntarily into a State mental hospital. But the facts remain that there is always a chance of a life time term of involuntary hospitalization, for those mentally ill who are convicted of committing a felony. While rare to say the least, even crimes like felony theft or felony driving while licensed suspended as habitual offender are enough to put a mentally ill defendant into a Florida state mental hospital for a term of life, if convicted in the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court.

So, the misconception that the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court is a place where those suffering from mental disease may find a free journey out of their criminal arrest is just not true. The policy objective of the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court is to first keep the public safe. The second objective is to tailor a treatment plan for the criminal defendant; who was suffering from mental illness at the time of the crime but has since had their competency restored, during their term of supervision whether it be probation, incarceration or in the State mental hospital.

Lastly, the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court has had a positive effect on many defendants and their family. The point here is that the Palm Beach County Mental Health Court is the same as any other Felony court with the caveat of having a specialized form of providers, mental health care workers, social workers and other specialized individuals that can help assist the criminal defendant finish their sentence.

Another area that I have to address on a regular basis is diminished capacity. Explaining diminished capacity to the criminal defendant and sometimes their family members, about the criminal defendant’s mental illness or “mental break,” as I like to put it, at the time of the alleged criminal act is a daunting task.

First, diminish capacity is defined in Florida as an “abnormal mental condition, not constituting legal insanity, to negate the element of intent of a crime.” See Occhicone v. State, 570 So. 2d 902 (Fla. 1990). Many times the mentally ill client will rightfully point out that they were suffering from diminished capacity at the time they allegedly committed the crime. They will also show that “today they feel better” and are taking their meds, so they are not “insane.” This too may be true. But I quickly explain to all parties that diminished capacity is NOT a defense in Florida!

There are a line of cases in Florida from the Florida Supreme Court, all the way through the veins of the District Court of Appeals, that simply do not allow for any argument by defense counsel or any jury instructions on the issue of diminished capacity. In Chestnut, the Florida Supreme Court reasoned in a death penalty appeal case that the trial court correctly held that defense counsel is not ineffective for failing to present the defense of diminished capacity. The Florida Supreme Court, not parsing words, held that diminished capacity is not a viable defense in Florida. See Chestnut v. State, 538 So.2d 820, 820 (Fla.1989).

Additionally, as to the criminal client suffering from mental illness, who had suffered from an “abnormal break,” due to his or her illness, during the time of the alleged criminal act, is not defense in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court specifically stated that this court has held on numerous occasions that evidence of an abnormal mental condition not constituting legal insanity is not admissible to negate specific intent crimes. See Spencer v. State, 842 So. 2d 52, at pg. 63 (Fla. 2003).  Now, the Florida Supreme Court has carved out some exceptions to this strictly enforced rule of law and are listed in Bunney v. State, 603 So. 2d 1270 at pg. 1273 (Fla. 1992) where the court reasoned that “there are exceptions to the rule of law that evidence of an abnormal mental condition not constituting legal insanity is admissible and include those medical or mental conditions which are ‘commonly understood’ and may be explained to the jury without the assistance of a mental health expert, such as medication, epilepsy, infancy, and senility.” There is no mention of mental disease like Bi-Polar, Schizophrenia, Depression, and so on when it comes to mental illnesses. The Florida Supreme Court clearly points out that if a “mental health expert” is needed to explain to the jury what the disease is then the defense will not be allowed. See Bunney.

In Florida, the idea of using diminished capacity as a defense must be fully articulated by the criminal lawyer to their client, as the subject matter is difficult and misleading not only for the general public but for most lawyers. Those misleading ideas come from the compassion that we have gained as a society through the years for those suffering from mental illness versus the arcane laws in Florida that limit the ability to argue diminished capacity as a defense to crimes. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about for those carrying the infliction and for their family members suffering through it with them.

If you or a loved one is arrested for a crime and is or was suffering from mental illness it is your best interest to hire a Palm Beach Criminal Defense Lawyer Andrew D. Stine. West Palm Beach Criminal Defense Attorney Andrew D. Stine has been working with those inflicted with mental illness and facing criminal charges for well over a decade. Understanding the needs associated with those suffering from mental illness and balancing their rights in criminal courts throughout Florida has become a cornerstone of West Palm Beach Criminal Defense Lawyer Andrew D. Stine passion. If you or a loved one is in need of Criminal Defense Lawyer in Palm Beach County, Florida call 561 832 1170 like thousands of have done for over the past decade. Remember, Hire Stine or Do the Time.

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