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Vt. mental health commissioner sanctioned by judge for refusing to conduct competency evaluation

A wooden gavel on a table with a blurry bookshelf in the background.
A Vermont judge declared the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health in contempt of court after the department refused to conduct an updated competency evaluation for a defendant in a two-year-old case. In her ruling, Judge Alison Arms also levied a $3,000 fine against the commissioner.

In a highly unusual move, a Vermont judge declared the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health to be in contempt of court and levied a $3,000 fine after the department refused to conduct a court-ordered competency evaluation of a defendant.

Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Alison Arms said in her ruling the Department of Mental Heath had offered “nonsensical assertions and nonexistent legal grounds,” for refusing to perform an evaluation in a two-year old case. And she accused the department of “ continued obstruction of the criminal justice process.”

“The Department is supposed to work in partnership with the Judiciary to ensure due process to criminal defendants, including to ensure that they are only tried if competent. The testimony produced in these hearings reveals a system that is at odds with this goal and demonstrates a fundamental breakdown in the partnership between our two entities,” Arms wrote in her ruling issued last Friday.

According to the ruling, the Department of Mental Health was ordered in late November 2022 to perform an updated competency evaluation in a two-year-old case where the defendant was accused of violating a restraining order.

Several days after the court ordered the evaluation, the Department of Mental Health told the court it wouldn’t conduct the new competency evaluation and that the defense attorneys and prosecutors should arrange and pay for another evaluation on their own, court records say.

Competency evaluations are conducted to determine if a defendant understands the criminal charges against them. Legal proceedings can be halted if a defendant is found to be incompetent, though they can resume if a defendant’s mental health improves.

The Department of Mental Health said that Vermont law doesn’t require the department to conduct updated competency evaluations, and that the department already has a backlog of evaluations, according to court records.

“The amount of time and resources that have already been expended on defendant’s evaluation, and more importantly the number of evaluations waiting to be done, the Commissioner’s decision not to schedule defendant for another evaluation is justifiable," assistant attorney general Matthew Viens told the court, according to Arms’ ruling.

A spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The court held several days of hearings on the matter. Judge Arms ultimately found that the department’s arguments had no merit.

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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