Mental Health and Domestic Violence

Many domestic violence arrests are based on circumstances that are not really criminal in nature, but rather stem from mental health issues. Police are frequently not trained in how to distinguish criminal behavior from psychotic episodes. In addition, even if the police recognize a situation as being likely mental health the police officer may not believe that they have any choice other than to make an arrest. There are also very few resources available to treat or house mentally ill patients, sometimes making it almost impossible for police to do anything other than place someone in jail.

Not only is an individual with a mental health condition at risk for an unfair arrest, if they are having a breakdown of a psychotic episode they can make false reports to police resulting in the arrest of their partner.

This problem is not limited to domestic violence. A significant number of South Carolina prison inmates suffer from mental illness, and the state fails to provide them with adequate care.

In a 2014 ruling involving a lawsuit brought on behalf of inmates against the state regarding mental health care, the judge stated:

"…inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound mental illness."

T.R. vs. South Carolina Department of Corrections, Case No.: 05-CP-40-2925.

Our criminal justice system can't be trusted to automatically identify mental health related domestic violence arrests. For this reason it is necessary that whenever there is a mental health overlay to a domestic violence situation that the defendant be represented by an attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced in these areas.

Evaluation of Mental Health Cases

A significant number of our domestic violence defense cases involve mental health issues. Because of that we have developed specific defense systems in place to ensure that our client's rights and interests are protected. When confronted by a mental health case we incorporate the use of psychologists, investigators, and other necessary experts to ensure that we can provide a thorough assessment of the case and as clear of a presentation to the prosecutor as possible. It may take several months to complete a full defense-oriented psychological evaluation, so it is important to begin as soon as possible in order to have the results in time for court or negotiation with the prosecutor.

Capacity vs. Competency vs. Mitigation vs. Witness Reliability

After a thorough investigation and evaluation, there are four ways that mental health issues can be raised in a case.

Capacity: If a defendant's mental health prevents them from having the capacity to follow the law, this can serve as a defense. You may see this referred to as the M'Naughten or McNaughton rule.

Competency: If a defendant's mental health prevents them from understanding their charges or effectively participating in the criminal court process this can prevent their case from going to trial and ultimately lead to a dismissal. This would be decided by the court after what is called a Blair hearing.

Mitigation: A defendant's special circumstances that support having a more favorable treatment by the prosecutor or judge is called mitigation. These are facts that may not show that the defendant is not-guilty, but instead that they deserve to be treated with more leniency. Mental health conditions that make a defendant more sympathetic can serve as mitigation. Other examples not related to mental health would include things like not having a prior record, history of community service, or being able to pass a drug test.

Witness Reliability: Sometimes mental health conditions can effect a witnesses' recollection of events. They may remember things differently than they happened. In other circumstances a mental health condition may cause a witness to make false or exaggerated allegations or provide inaccurate information to the police. These are situations where the witnesses' reliability could be challenged.

The first step is to schedule an initial appointment with our office. During that appointment you'll have chance to explain your side of the case and to ask any questions that you may have. If mental health issues arise, we can prepare a comprehensive plan to effectively manage them.

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