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Court reverses conviction due to denial of competency evaluation

The Court of Appeals of Virginia has reversed a man’s conviction on multiple firearm and drug-related charges after it determined a trial judge incorrectly denied the man’s counsel’s motion for a competency evaluation.

The case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

The Nov. 23 opinion, Clark v. Commonwealth (VLW 021-7-163), was authored by Court of Appeals Judge Daniel E. Ortiz.

Trial court

Chesapeake police officers executed a search warrant on Eric Torez Clark based on information that he was involved in a drug transaction.

After searching Clark and his vehicle, police found cocaine, cocaine distribution paraphernalia and a gun. Clark was subsequently arrested and later indicted by a grand jury for multiple drug and firearm-related charges.

On Nov. 8, 2019, Clark’s court appointed counsel, William Joshua Holder, filed a motion for a competency evaluation. Holder supported this motion by citing difficult counsel-client communication, argumentative behavior by Clark, Clark’s belief in conspiracy theories surrounding the case and his documented mental health history.

Ten days later, Chesapeake Circuit Judge Rufus A. Banks Jr. denied the motion. Holder then withdrew as Clark’s counsel and was replaced by Chesapeake attorney Tiffany T. Crawford.

Crawford filed a second motion for a competency evaluation within months of becoming Clark’s counsel. Per the opinion, Crawford said she felt “ethically bound” to seek the evaluation because Clark’s mental health issues had deteriorated “to the point she no longer believed he understood what was happening in the case.”

During a June 2020 hearing on Crawford’s motion before then-Chesapeake Circuit Judge Randall D. Smith, Crawford said Clark “was having trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality” and provided letters he sent to his sister detailing a conspiracy.

Crawford also cited Holder’s previous motion, adding “‘the fact that two separate defense attorneys, who are both very experienced in dealing with clients’ have made similar motions casts sufficient doubt on Clark’s competency.”

Smith “repeatedly asked Crawford to present evidence of Clark’s inability to understand the proceedings or assist counsel.” Crawford stated her impressions of Clark’s incompetence, adding that while she could not share the specifics of her conversations with Clark, they “concerned her.”

The judge dismissed Crawford’s representations as “conclusions” or “opinion” and continued to ask Crawford for “evidence,” according to the opinion.

Smith ultimately denied the motion, stating the evidence “did not support a finding of probable cause for a competency evaluation.” Clark was tried and convicted of all charges at a bench trial. He appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion in denying the competency evaluation motions.

Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals opinion cited Va. Code § 19.2-169.1 — titled “Raising questions of competency to stand trial or plead; evaluation and determination of competency” — which is intended as a “procedural safeguard” to ensure an incompetent defendant is not criminally prosecuted.

While courts have not established “fixed or immutable signs” indicating a defendant requires a competency evaluation, Ortiz noted that judges have routinely used “several relevant factors to determine if an evaluation is warranted under the circumstances.”

The judge wrote that an attorney’s opinion on his client’s competency is a “persuasive factor” in this evaluation.

“[The code] explicitly mentions a court can find probable cause for a competency evaluation ‘upon hearing evidence or representations of counsel for the defendant,’” Ortiz explained. “A defendant’s counsel is in the best, and sometimes only, position to recognize and report the defendant’s present capacity to understand proceedings and participate in trial preparation.”

The appellate judge said Supreme Court precedent obligated the trial court to consider relevant factors when determining if a competency evaluation is warranted, adding that “a trial court may abuse its discretion if it evaluates a factor incognizant of the others.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals sided with Clark, concluding, “we hold the court abused its discretion at the June hearing because it explicitly failed to consider counsel’s representations, a relevant factor that should have been given significant weight.”

Ortiz wrote that, by dismissing Crawford’s representations as “conclusions” or “opinions” and not accepting them as a relevant factor in the analysis, the trial judge “contravened Code § 19.2-169.1(A), which specifically references counsel’s representations as a basis for probable cause.”

“Because case law states the court should strongly consider counsel’s representations, and a court abuses its discretion when it fails to consider a relevant factor with significant weight, the court abused its discretion when it refused to consider Crawford’s representations,” the judge wrote.

The Court of Appeals focused solely on the June 2020 hearing, declining to reach a decision on the November 2019 hearing “because the best and narrowest ground for our decision is the abuse of discretion that occurred at the June hearing.”

Crawford represented Clark in his appeal. Senior Assistant Attorney General Rosemary V. Bourne represented the Commonwealth.

The case returns to the trial court for further proceedings.