Friday, September 1, 2006
Prosecutors May Not Impeach Defendants With Statements Made in Court-Ordered Mental Competency Exams—S.C.
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
Prosecutors may not impeach testifying defendants at trial with statements they made before trial during a court-ordered mental competency examination, the California Supreme Court held yesterday in a 4-3 decision.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the court, concluded that impeaching defendants with statements they made to mental health professionals at a previous competency examination violates the federal Constitution’s privilege against self-incrimination.
Even though statements made at a competency examination are not “compelled” under California’s statutory scheme, Kennard explained, U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the Fifth Amendment holds such statements inadmissible to prove guilt and therefore inadmissible for impeachment purposes unless the policy supporting admissibility is sufficiently weighty.
Balancing the policy interest in deterring and exposing perjury against the policy interest in preserving and enhancing the reliability of mental competency evaluations, Kennard reasoned that the latter prevailed.
“If a defendant’s statements during the examination could later be used to impeach the defendant during the criminal trial, the defendant would have a strong incentive not to be forthcoming during the examination, thus undermining the reliability of the competency determination,” she wrote.
This would in turn seriously compromise the court’s ability to determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, the justice explained, a concern which outweighed any risk to the truth-seeking function of a criminal trial were impeachment denied.
“[T]he frequency and utility of impeachment at trial with a defendant’s inconsistent statements during a competency examination is speculative,” she said.
The majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Ming W. Chin and Carlos R. Moreno.
Dissenting, Justice Marvin R. Baxter, joined by Justice Carol A. Corrigan, called the majority’s holding “unnecessary and incorrect.”
Under federal constitutional principles, he said, statements that cannot be used to prove guilt are also barred from impeachment use only where they were truly involuntary when made.
Maintaining that statements made in mental competency evaluations are voluntary and a rule forbidding impeachment would give defendants an unfair advantage, he concluded:
“[I]t does not thwart the legitimate purposes of a competency examination for counsel to advise his client that, while his statements cannot be used to prove his guilt, they may come back to haunt him if he testifies at trial and changes his story. In effect, such advice promotes the proper purposes of both the competency examination and the trial to discover the truth.”
Dissenting separately, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said the majority should have decided the question on the basis of state law rather than federal constitutional grounds.
“[T]he state immunity we have previously recognized for statements made during competency examinations, properly understood, applies to bar their use for impeachment,” she said, noting that California’s courts recognized immunity in competency hearings even before the U.S. Supreme Court articulated Fifth Amendment limits on the use of competency examination statements.
Although the justices were split on the impeachment issue, they unanimously affirmed the conviction of the defendant, Charles G. Pokovich, who raised the contention on appeal.
A jury had convicted Polkovich of charges of shooting at an occupied vehicle and assault with a firearm, stemming from a 2002 incident in which he shot at two people who were backing their car out of the driveway across from his home.
The day prior to the preliminary hearing, Polkovich had undergone a court-ordered mental competency evaluation at which he related to his examiners several facts that he later attempted to deny on cross-examination, such as his statement to one of them that he drank two beers and shot at blue jays and rabbits the day of the car shooting.
The justices concluded that Polkovich was not prejudiced by the prosecutor’s use of competency evaluation statements to impeach him at trial.
The court’s error in allowing such impeachment did not contribute to the guilty verdict, Kennard said, because the evidence against Polkovich was overwhelming while the prosecutor’s impeachment was minimal. For example, she noted, the bullet fragment taken from one of the victims’ cars matched the shell casings found both at Polkovich’s home and in his rifle.
Deputy Attorney General Robert Gezi, who argued the case before the supreme court, told the MetNews he was satisfied that the court upheld the judgment, but was disappointed by its ruling on the underlying point of law.
“It seems to me, as [Baxter’s] concurrence stated, if the statements at a competency hearing examination are not compelled, we ought to be able to use them for impeachment at a trial.”
Polkovich’s counsel could not be reached.
The case is People v. Pokovich, 06 S.O.S. 4656.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company