In United States v. Brennan, the Second Circuit (Kearse, Winter, Pooler) rejected an as-applied challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d), which requires a defendant who has been found incompetent to stand trial to be committed to the custody of the Attorney General to determine whether he is likely to attain competency in the future. Section 4241(d), as discussed below, is a statute meant to guarantee a constitutional right to be free from unreasonable restraint. Brennan argued that his commitment violated his right to due process because a physician had already found that his mental illness was unlikely to improve. The Court rejected this argument, noting that determining the likelihood of a defendant’s future competency is a question for the District Court to decide after a period of reasonable commitment under the statute.
In 2014, Defendant Donald Brennan was convicted of lewd molestation of an elderly or disabled person in the third degree, requiring him to register as a sex offender. When Brennan moved from Florida to New York, he failed to register as a sex offender with New York authorities, as required by the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (“SORNA”). In February 2018, police officers in Cheektowaga, New York observed Brennan—who was homeless at the time—disoriented and covered in filth on a sidewalk. The officers eventually checked with the New York Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders and discovered that Brennan was required to register as a sex offender. They then charged Brennan with failing to register under SORNA.
In proceedings before the District Court, Brennan’s lawyer stated that he was unable to meaningfully discuss the case with his client because Brennan was suffering from serious memory problems and was incoherent. Brennan’s lawyer requested a competency hearing, which the District Court ordered. In the fall of 2018, a forensic psychologist, Dr. Samantha E. DiMisa, evaluated Brennan and determined that he had a long history of alcohol abuse and had been hospitalized many times for alcohol-related reasons. She further found that Brennan exhibited difficulties in cognitive function and memory and that his condition was unlikely to significantly improve, especially if he continued to consume alcohol. Dr. DiMisa concluded that Brennan did not then possess a factual and rational understanding of the proceedings against him and was unable to participate in his defense.
After a competency hearing, the Magistrate Judge (Roemer, M.J.) held that Brennan was not competent to stand trial and concluded that under 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d), the Court was required to commit Brennan to the custody of the Attorney General for up to four months, to determine whether he would be competent to stand trial in the future. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d) provides that “[i]f, after the hearing, the court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant is presently 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 or to assist properly in his defense, the court shall commit the defendant to the custody of the Attorney General” (emphasis added). The defendant shall be hospitalized “for such a reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months, as is necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future he will attain the capacity to permit the proceedings to go forward.” Id.
The District Court (Wolford, J.), affirmed the Magistrate Judge’s rulings and ordered the Bureau of Prisons to provide a status report on Brennan’s condition within 45 days of his hospitalization. Brennan took an interlocutory appeal from the District Court’s order, arguing that his commitment violated his right to due process. Specifically, Brennan argued that Section 4241(d), as applied to him, violated due process because Dr. DiMisa has already determined that it was unlikely his condition would improve.
The Court’s Decision
On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed. It began by noting that 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d) serves an important Government interest in bringing those accused of crimes to trial, an interest it described as “fundamental to a scheme of ordered liberty and a prerequisite to social justice and peace.” Because only those who are mentally competent may stand trial, the Government also has an important interest in securing an accurate determination of defendants’ mental capacities, present and future. These interests, the Court reasoned, must be balanced with the defendant’s right to be free from unreasonable restraint. As the Supreme Court has recognized, a defendant can be detained only for “the reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that he will attain [competency to stand trial] in the foreseeable future.” Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 738 (1972).
The Court further noted that 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d) was adopted in response to, and is consistent with, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Jackson v. Indiana. Specifically, the statute requires commitment only after a defendant has been found incompetent to stand trial. It limits the time of commitment to a “reasonable period of time, not to exceed four months, as is necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that in the foreseeable future, [the defendant] will attain the capacity” to stand trial. 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d)(1). If the defendant is unlikely to attain competency to stand trial, the District Court must hold a hearing to determine whether the defendant is dangerous. If the defendant is found by clear and convincing evidence to be dangerous, he remains in the custody of the Attorney General or is transferred to state authorities. Otherwise, the defendant is released from custody.
With respect to Brennan’s as-applied challenge to his commitment, the Court concluded that his commitment was constitutional and mandatory under the statute. It rejected Brennan’s argument that he should not have been committed because Dr. DiMisa had found that his mental illness was unlikely to improve. The Court reasoned that competency to stand trial is an issue of law that must be made by the District Court. A report by a physician, such as Dr. DiMisa, cannot appropriately resolve this quintessentially judicial task. Because the District Court had not yet made any determination as to Brennan’s future competency, it was appropriate—and in fact required—that Brennan be committed to the custody of the Attorney General for evaluation.
In this case, the Court balanced a defendant’s right to be free from unreasonable restraint with the need for the judicial system to effectively evaluate whether that defendant is likely to be competent to stand trial in the future. The Court’s decision is unsurprising given that 18 U.S.C. § 4241(d) was intended to be consistent with due process, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Jackson v. Indiana, and because the District Court faithfully applied the requirements of the statute. The Court’s decision is notable in recognizing that assessing a defendant’s competency—present and future—is a judicial function. Judges rely on the expertise of medical practitioners in making that determination, but the ultimate decision rests with the trial judge. The Court’s decision, although limited to Brennan’s specific circumstances, will make it difficult for other defendants to challenge commitment under Section 4241(d), meaning they will almost certainly be committed in the event they are found incompetent to stand trial. Although it seems unlikely based on the factual rendition provided by the Court that Brennan will ever be competent to stand trial and that some long-term residential program is in order, it is at least possible that continued treatment and hospitalization will help to improve his condition and permit him to stand trial. Time will tell.