State v. Dort
Due process requires a trial court to conduct an "independent inquiry" into the defendant's competence when specific factual allegations are made that, if true, would be substantial evidence of mental impairment. The jury reasonably could have found the following facts. Joel Dort entered the building of his former employer and confronted his former supervisor in her office asking for his job back. The supervisor informed him that the job had been outsourced and asked him to leave. When he did not, she attempted to call security. Dort grabbed the telephone and pointed a gun at her. He stopped her from leaving by crushing her hand in the door, grabbed her by the throat and slammed her head against the wall. She eventually broke free and ran. Dort was arrested. Following a competency examination, the parties stipulated that Dort was competent to stand trial. During jury selection, defense counsel raised concerns about the defendant's competency to assist in his own defense. The court declined to order another evaluation or to hear from Dort directly when defense counsel asked if the defendant could address the court. Following trial, Dort was found guilty of burglary and kidnapping in the first degree. He appealed claiming that the court erred in denying defense counsel's request for a second competency examination. The Appellate Court reversed the conviction finding that the trial court erred by conducting an inadequate inquiry into the defendant's competence. The proper question was not whether the court abused its discretion in failing to order a competency evaluation; rather the question was whether the court abused its discretion in failing to conduct an "independent inquiry" into Dort's competence. An independent inquiry, in the form of a hearing before the court, necessarily precedes the step, if applicable, in which the court determines if a competency evaluation is justified. Defense counsel's assertions and statements were found sufficient to constitute specific factual allegations that, if taken as true, would constitute substantial evidence of mental impairment. The court was required to conduct an "independent inquiry" to determine whether a competency evaluation was justified. The court did not speak to the defendant or record its observation of his behavior. By failing to conduct an appropriate inquiry into the defendant's competence, the court violated the defendant's due process rights.