130.1Defendant’s Capacity to Proceed

Basic Requirements and Overview
Last Updated: 12/01/23

Key Concepts

  • The defendant must have capacity to proceed in order to be prosecuted.
  • If defendant lacks capacity to proceed and capacity cannot be restored then the criminal charges must be dismissed, but the defendant may still be subject to civil commitment.

No defendant may be tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished for a crime when, by reason of mental illness or defect, the defendant is unable to:

  1. Understand the nature and object of the proceedings against the defendant;
  2. Comprehend his or her own situation concerning the proceedings; or
  3. Assist in his or her defense in a rational or reasonable manner.

See G.S. 15A-1001(a). If a defendant fails to meet any one of these criteria, the defendant may not be put on trial, permitted to plead, sentenced or punished. State v. Jenkins, 300 N.C. 578 (1980); State v. Shytle, 323 N.C. 684 (1989). See also Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993) (standard for competence to plead guilty and to waive counsel is the same as standard for competence to stand trial). But note that this does not prevent the court from addressing any motions that can be handled by counsel without the assistance of the defendant. G.S. 15A-1001(b).

The trial court’s determination of capacity to proceed receives deference on appellate review. See State v. Newson, 239 N.C. App. 183 (2015) (affirming trial court’s finding of competency based on several reports and hearings, despite one contrary expert opinion); State v. Chukwu, 230 N.C. App. 553 (2013) (deferring to trial court's determination of competency, despite some evidence defendant experienced delusions and was unwilling to work with defense counsel).

The standard for “capacity to proceed” differs from the standard for whether the defendant was "insane" at the time he or she allegedly committed the crime charged. See, e.g., State v. Jones, 293 N.C. 413, 425 (1977) ("It is thoroughly established in the law of this State, by numerous decisions of this Court, that the test of insanity as a defense to a criminal charge is whether the accused, at the time of the alleged act, was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease or deficiency of the mind, as to be incapable of knowing the nature and quality of the act, or, if he does know this, was, by reason of such defect of reason, incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong in relation to such act."); see also G.S. 122C-268(j) (stating the criteria for involuntary commitment: "the court shall find by clear, cogent, and convincing evidence that the respondent is mentally ill and dangerous to self, as defined in G.S. 122C-3(11)a., or dangerous to others").

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2013 North Carolina Defender Manual, Volume I, Chapter 2.