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United States v. Gomez

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 21, 2016

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
FRANK D. GOMEZ, Defendant.

          RULING RE: COMPETENCY

          Janet C. Hall United States District Judge

         I. BACKGROUND

         On August 5, 2013, a federal grand jury returned an Indictment charging defendant Frank D. Gomez (“Gomez”) with one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine base; one count of possession with intent to distribute marijuana; one count of possession of a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime; and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. See Indictment (Doc. No. 11). Several months later, on November 14, 2013, Gomez, through counsel, filed a Motion seeking evaluation of his competency to stand trial pursuant to section 4241(a) of title 18 of the United States Code, see Mot. for Court-Ordered Evaluation of Def. to Determine Competency (Doc. No. 30), which the court granted, see Order for Temporary Commitment for Competency Evaluation and Report (Doc. No. 33).

         Following the court’s Order, Gomez was evaluated by psychologist Dana Brauman (“Dr. Brauman”) at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in New York, New York. Dr. Brauman ultimately concluded that, at the time of evaluation, Gomez was not competent to stand trial. Upon receipt of Dr. Brauman’s report (the “Brauman Report”), the court scheduled a competency hearing, which was held on March 21, 2014. See Minute Entry (Doc. No. 41). After the hearing, the court found that Gomez was “suffering from a mental disease or defect[ ] rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him and to assist properly in his defense, ” and therefore committed Gomez to the custody of the Attorney General for a period of four months for hospitalization and treatment. Order Committing Def. for Competency Evaluation and Treatment (Doc. No. 42).

         While in custody, Gomez was evaluated by Dr. Christina Pietz (“Dr. Pietz”), a certified forensic psychologist working at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri (“MCFP Springfield”), who prepared a report (the “Pietz Report”) in which she opined that, at the time of her evaluation, Gomez was competent to stand trial. After the court received Dr. Pietz’s report, the court held a second competency hearing at which both Dr. Brauman and Dr. Pietz testified. See Hr’g Tr. at 2 (Doc. No. 61). Following the hearing, Gomez filed a Motion asking the court to find him incompetent to stand trial or, in the alternative, to continue the matter for 60 days to allow his counsel “to receive additional requested records and conduct an updated competency evaluation.” Def.’s Post-Hr’g Mem. Re: Competency and Mot. for Continuance at 1 (Doc. No. 62). The court granted Gomez’s Motion to Continue over the government’s objection and scheduled oral argument on Gomez’s Motion to be declared incompetent. See Order (Doc. No. 71).

         In early February 2015, Gomez was evaluated by Tobias Wasser (“Dr. Wasser”), a certified forensic psychiatrist who subsequently prepared a report (the “Wasser Report”) in which he opined that, at the time of his evaluation, Gomez was “afflicted with a mental disease or defect, which renders him unable to formulate and sustain a rational understanding of the proceedings against him or to assist in his defense.” Wasser Report at 21 (Doc. No. 78-1). After reviewing Dr. Wasser’s report and hearing argument from the parties on Gomez’s Motion, the court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Gomez was “suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent, ” and again ordered that Gomez be committed to the custody of the Attorney General for purposes of hospitalization and treatment for a period not to exceed four months. Order Committing Def. for Competency Evaluation and Treatment (Doc. No. 96).

         In accordance with the court’s Order, Gomez was again committed to MCFP Springfield, where he was evaluated by Lea Ann Preston Baecht (“Dr. Baecht”), a certified forensic psychologist. Dr. Baecht prepared a report (the “Baecht Report”) in which she opined that “Gomez is competent to proceed with his legal case” and that he “will remain competent for the foreseeable future.” Baecht Report at 13 (Gov’t’s Ex. 4) (Doc. No. 142). After receiving and reviewing Dr. Baecht’s Report, the court held a competency hearing at which Dr. Pietz, Dr. Wasser, and Dr. Baecht testified. See Minute Entry (Doc. No. 137) (noting competency hearing held on April 20, 2016); Minute Entry (Doc. No. 140) (noting continued competency hearing held on May 18, 2016); Marked Exhibit & Witness List (Doc. No. 142). The court subsequently held an oral argument at which the parties set forth their respective positions regarding Gomez’s competency. See Minute Entry (Doc. No. 145).

         For the reasons that follow, the court now finds that Gomez is competent to stand trial on the charges pending against him.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         The right of a defendant who is incompetent not to stand trial on criminal charges is secured by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution. See United States v. Kerr, 752 F.3d 206, 215 (2d Cir. 2014). This important constitutional right is further “safeguarded by 18 U.S.C. § 4241, which requires the district court, upon its own motion if necessary, to hold a competency hearing ‘if there is reasonable cause to believe that the defendant may . . . [be] mentally incompetent.’” Id. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a)). A defendant’s right to avoid standing trial while incompetent “‘spans the duration of a criminal proceeding, ’ including sentencing.” United States v. Jackson, __ F. App’x __, 2016 WL 1743497 at *1 (2d Cir. May 3, 2016) (quoting United States v. Arenburg, 605 F.3d 164, 168-69 (2d Cir. 2010) (per curiam)).

         The court uses a familiar, two-pronged test to assess whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, asking: (1) “whether [the defendant] has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding, ” and (2) “whether [the defendant] has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960). “In making a determination of competency, the district court may rely on a number of factors, including medical opinion and the court’s observation of the defendant’s comportment.” United States v. Nichols, 56 F.3d 403, 411 (2d Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

         Although federal statutes make clear that competency in federal cases must be established by a preponderance of the evidence, see 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d), the relevant statutory provisions do not allocate the burden of proof, and whether the burden of establishing competency is on the defendant or the government has not been squarely decided by the Second Circuit or the Supreme Court, see United States v. Garcia, 282 F. App’x 14, 17 (2d Cir. 2008) (summary order) (“A court determines competency by a preponderance of the evidence, although Garcia correctly observes that the burden of proof in establishing competency is undecided in this Circuit and by the Supreme Court.”); Nichols, 56 F.3d at 410 (declining to resolve the question of who bears the burden of establishing competency); United States v. Ditomasso, No. 14-cr-160 (SAS), 2015 WL 7758535 at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 1, 2015) (noting that neither the Second Circuit nor the Supreme Court has decided who bears the burden of establishing competency).[1] Moreover, the Circuits that have addressed the question of who bears the burden of establishing competency are split. See Ditomasso, 2015 WL 7758535 at *1 (noting that the Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits place the burden of proof on the defendant, while the Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits place the burden of proof on the government).

         Although a definitive answer on the question of who bears the burden of establishing competency has not been set forth by the Supreme Court, in Cooper v. Oklahoma the Supreme Court noted, in dicta, that “Congress has directed that the accused in a federal prosecution must prove incompetence by a preponderance of the evidence, ” Cooper, 517 U.S. 348, 362 (1996) (citing 18 U.S.C. § 4241) (emphasis added), which is consistent with the general criminal law principal that “[a] defendant may be presumed to be competent, ” United States v. Pope, 146 F. App’x 536, 539 (2d Cir. 2005) (summary order). Other courts in this Circuit have relied on the foregoing to conclude that the burden of establishing incompetence to stand trial rests with the defendant. See Ditomasso, 2015 WL 7758535 at *1 n.9 (collecting cases). Ultimately, however, whether the burden of establishing competence is on the defendant or the government may primarily be an academic concern; as the Second Circuit has made clear, “the allocation of the burden of proof to the defendant will affect competency determinations only in a narrow class of cases where the evidence is in equipoise; that is, where the evidence that a defendant is competent is just as strong as the evidence that he is incompetent.” Nichols, 56 F.3d at 410 (quoting Medina v. California, 505 U.S. 437, 449 (1992)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In support of their respective positions on whether Gomez is competent to stand trial on the charges against him, the parties have submitted conflicting reports and testimony from various mental health professionals. In the ensuing discussion, the court summarizes the evidence submitted by the parties, including the reports of Dr. Brauman, Dr. Pietz, Dr. Wasser, and Dr. Baecht, the testimony of the latter three individuals at the competency hearings on April 20, 2016, and May 18, 2016, and the court’s own observations of Gomez’s behavior during those hearings. The court then analyzes this evidence, ultimately concluding that Gomez is presently competent to stand trial.

         A. Reports

         As noted earlier in this Ruling, three psychologists and one psychiatrist have evaluated Gomez in connection with his competency to stand trial on the federal charges pending against him, often reaching conflicting conclusions on the question of Gomez’s competency.[2] The court will briefly summarize each of these reports in turn.

         1. Dr. Brauman

         Dr. Brauman’s report, which is dated February 21, 2014, is based upon approximately 10 hours of evaluations conducted over the course of a month in January and February 2014. As part of Dr. Brauman’s evaluation, Gomez completed numerous psychological tests. See Brauman Report at 1-2 (Gov’t’s Ex. 12) (Doc. No. 146). Dr. Brauman also conducted phone interviews with Gomez’s lawyer, counsel for the government, and Gomez’s mother. See id. at 2. Finally, Dr. Brauman reviewed various legal documents and medical records associated with Gomez. See id.

         Dr. Brauman reported that, at the time of her evaluation, Gomez had two prior psychiatric hospitalizations-“one at the age of 12 due to his depressive symptoms and the other at the age of 23, due to his substance abuse, ” id. at 15-as well as a history of numerous periods of treatment at hospital emergency departments, often for complaints that appeared related to Gomez’s substance abuse, id. at 7. The substance abuse in question is a multi-year history of daily use of phencyclidine (“PCP”) and marijuana; Gomez has “maintained sobriety only while incarcerated.” Id. ...


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