Agencies spar over fees for evaluations of indigent defendants
Published: September 17, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Justice Department and the Office of the Territorial Public Defender are at odds over who should pay for the mental health evaluations of indigent defendants.
Officials from both offices said tight government budgets and a dysfunctional mental health care system in the territory are the underlying issues exacerbating the jurisdictional battle.
The V.I. Supreme Court denied a writ of prohibition called for by the Attorney General's Office in an opinion summary published Thursday.
Assistant Attorney General Tiffany Montrose filed the writ of prohibition in protest of a Superior Court order that the Attorney General's Office pay for the psychiatric and/or psychological evaluation of a defendant named Major Lee Womack.
Montrose argued that the Superior Court did not have the proper statutory authority to order the Justice Department to pay for the evaluation and that such a payment would amount to an "unfunded liability for the remainder of the fiscal year," according to the summary of the Supreme Court opinion.
Womack is being prosecuted for one count of destruction of property and one count of trespass, according to a criminal complaint.
However, according to the Supreme Court opinion, Womack possesses a "long-standing history of mental illness" and similar evaluations ordered in two prior criminal cases against him established that he has been diagnosed with "schizophrenia paranoid acute, marijuana induced psychosis, and psychotic disorder NOS."
As an inmate of the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility, Womack has twice been charged with assault.
In May 2012, Womack and another inmate attacked and punched two corrections officers, according to an affidavit. Corrections officers reported that Womack assaulted another person in the facility April 26.
The second incident, in which Womack is charged with destruction of property and trespass, occurred at the LBJ Housing Complex on St. Croix on March 8. Police said Womack, of no fixed address, removed three window louvers and entered an apartment in the complex illegally, according to a criminal complaint.
Womack would seem to fall into a profile that Hannibal O'Bryan, first principal attorney in the St. Croix district of the Territorial Public Defender's office, said he has picked up in his 15 years of practice there. The criminal justice system becomes a revolving door, where defendants who truly require treatment end up getting shunted in and out of courts and jails, because the territory's mental health facilities are inadequate or non-existent, and the courts are the wrong venue to correct their underlying behavioral problems, O'Bryan said.
Mentally ill people brought into the criminal justice system require evaluations to establish their competency to stand trial and to establish the feasibility of a defense based on mental illness, according to O'Bryan.
Defendants enter into the court system under a "presumption of sanity." Once the presence of mental illness has been brought to the attention of the court, it "becomes the people's burden" to prove that an individual is competent to stand trial, O'Byran said.
Attorney General Vincent Frazer contradicted this position, saying that mental health evaluations should be paid for by defense attorneys as they initiate defenses based on mental illness and as they raise questions of competency first.
"The defense counsel should pay for it because if they are the ones making the motions, and as having the client evaluated is part of the motions, they need to have their client evaluated, especially if he does not have a public record," Frazer said. "There is money available for the expense in indigent defense funds, so it should be paid for out of those funds."
Frazer said that this process is the norm in other jurisdictions.
Although the Supreme Court rejected the idea that the Attorney General's Office should not have to pay for Womack's evaluation, they did so for procedural reasons, Frazer pointed out. This leaves the argument as to responsibility for paying for the evaluations open for further consideration.
The Supreme Court opinion states that the Attorney General's Office could have refused to pay for Womack's evaluation, allowed itself to have been found in contempt by the Superior Court, then filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, if it wanted to force consideration of the legal framework for financial responsibility. Because the Attorney General's Office instead charged the Superior Court with making it pay for an "unappropriated" expenditure, the vagaries linger unresolved in case law, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
The Superior Court was acting out of consideration for a defendant's due process right to an evaluation, and federal law simply states that governments foot the bill for this aspect of indigent defense, according to the high court's ruling. The V.I. Code does not specify which government entity is responsible, the opinion states.
"In the absence of any legislation providing for which government entity should pay for this constitutionally mandated expenditure, we cannot say that" the Superior Court wrongly ordered the Justice Department to pay for Womack's evaluation, the Supreme Court opinion states.
Frazer said that the issue of unfunded evaluations had become especially troubling to his office during the last year.
"We have been finding more and more cases where the Department of Justice has been ordered to pay for it, which we don't have the funding appropriated for doing that," Frazer said. "The impact in terms of justice is that it really affects my budget. We have less money to pay for travel, to pay for investigations, to pay for experts."
Frazer said alternative means of paying for evaluations, such as making the V.I. Health Department perform them for free are being explored.
O'Bryan said it used to be the case that the Health Department absorbed the cost years ago, and that the battle over responsibility has been fought through individual cases since.
The Supreme Court, being a relatively new court, has not established clear cut case law on the matter, O'Bryan said.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.