A trial judge who declined to conduct a competency hearing before proceeding with a criminal trial after the defendant overdosed on anti-anxiety medication midway through the trial did not commit a reversible error, a divided panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled.
A jury trial against Carolyn D. Sides on three counts of felony embezzlement began in Cabarrus County on Nov. 6, 2017. Sides was present in the courtroom on the first three days of trial and conferred with her attorney on multiple occasions, and the issue of her competency didn’t come up.
On the evening of Nov. 8, Sides ingested 60 one-milligram Xanax tablets in an apparent intentional overdose and was taken to the hospital for treatment. A treating physician filed a petition for involuntary commitment to keep Sides in the hospital for observation and further evaluation.
Superior Court Judge Beecher R. Gray continued the case until the following week in case Sides was able to return to the courtroom, but Sides was still absent and in the hospital when proceedings resumed. After Sides’ lawyer told Gray that he had not observed anything indicating that Sides lacked competency, he ruled that trial would proceed in her absence because she had “voluntarily by her own actions made herself absent from the trial.”
Sides’ lawyer objected, but did not ask Gray to conduct a competency hearing. Trial resumed and Gray told jurors not to consider Sides’ absence in weighing the evidence or determining guilt. The jury found Sides guilty of all three charges.
Sides returned to the courtroom for sentencing and testified on her own behalf, providing a lengthy personal statement accepting responsibility for her actions and responding to the questions of the lawyers without difficulty. The court imposed a sentence of 60 to 84 months and ordered her to pay $364,194.43 in restitution.
Sides appealed, arguing that the judge had erred by failing to conduct a competency hearing before proceeding with the trial in her absence following her overdose. Writing for the appeals court’s majority, Judge Allegra Collins agreed that Sides had voluntarily absented herself.
“Defendant’s attempt to execute a purposeful plan to commit suicide by overdosing on powerful intoxicants to avoid jail was done voluntarily,” Collins wrote. “As a result, Defendant voluntarily waived her right to be present at her trial, and following [State v.] Minyard, we conclude that the trial court did not err by proceeding with Defendant’s trial in her absence without first conducting a sua sponte competency hearing.”
Defendant waived her rights
In North Carolina, a trial court not only has a statutory duty to hold a hearing to resolve questions of a defendant’s competency if the issue is raised by any party, it also has a constitutional duty to institute such a hearing sua sponte if there is “substantial evidence” before the court indicating that the accused may be mentally incompetent. Sides contended that her history of mental illness, combined with her overdose, constituted substantial evidence to trigger the court’s constitutional mandate.
But a sua sponte competency hearing is not required where a defendant waives her constitutional right to be present at a non-capital trial, Collins explained, based on the Court of Appeals’ 2015 decision in Minyard.
In Minyard, the defendant intentionally overdosed on tranquilizers and alcohol during jury deliberations, becoming lethargic and slumping over in the courtroom. An appellate court affirmed the defendant’s conviction and held that the trial court did not commit reversible error by failing to institute a sua sponte competency hearing, given the fact that the defendant voluntarily ingested intoxicants with the intent of affecting his competency.
“Minyard controls our analysis in this case,” Collins wrote. “Like the Minyard defendant, [Sides] ingested a large quantity of intoxicants which rendered her unable to be present at her trial, and did so because she was concerned about the anticipated outcome of the trial.”
The question of whether Sides’ ingestion of the intoxicants was an attempted suicide rather than an attempt to render herself non-responsive did not distinguish Minyard, the court added, “because in both cases the defendants ingested a large quantity of intoxicants that rendered them unable to be present at their trials.
“And following Minyard, unless the trial court erred by concluding that [Sides] voluntarily ingested the intoxicants that caused her absence, and thereby waived her right to be present at her trial, the failure to conduct a sua sponte hearing regarding the competency of the voluntarily-absent [Sides] was not error.”
A voluntary act
Collins was not persuaded by Sides’ argument that her overdose was an involuntary act as a result of her mental illness.
“A consideration of the entire record does not convince us that [Sides’] overdose was the result of mental illness,” the court said. “The record reflects that [Sides] reported to the attending physician at the hospital that, prior to the overdose, (1) she had not been receiving any outpatient mental health services other than getting prescriptions from her primary care doctor, (2) she had never before been psychiatrically hospitalized, and (3) she had never before tried to hurt herself.”
When she was present at trial, Sides conferred with her counsel, who told the court he had not observed anything causing him concern about her competency prior to the overdose. The fact that Sides was committed involuntarily subsequent to her overdose didn’t change the analysis, Collins said.
“Because we conclude that [Sides] voluntarily ingested the intoxicants that caused her absence from trial, we accordingly conclude that [Sides] waived her right to be present at the trial and that the trial court did not err by proceeding with [her] trial in her absence without first conducting a sua sponte competency hearing,” Collins wrote.
Judge Donna Stroud dissented. The majority overlooked the necessity for Sides to first be competent to stand trial before she could voluntarily waive her constitutional right to be present, she wrote.
“At the very least, [Sides’] involuntary commitment was ‘substantial evidence’ that [Sides] ‘may be mentally incompetent,’ triggering the need for a hearing on the issue,” Stroud said. “In addition, a defendant involuntarily committed under a voluntary court order cannot logically be voluntarily absent from her trial during her involuntary commitment.”
Assistant Appellate Defender Wyatt Orsbon represented Sides on appeal. Orsbon did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
Special Deputy Attorney General Keith Clayton represented the state. A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office said only that the office was reviewing the decision.
The 36-page decision is State v. Sides (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-266-19). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.