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State v. Bellardino

Supreme Court of South Carolina

October 23, 2019

The State, Respondent,
v.
Alice Bellardino, Petitioner. Appellate Case No. 2018-001872

          Submitted October 4, 2019

         ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

          Elizabeth Fielding Pringle, Kieley Marie Sutton, and Constantine George Pournaras, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

          Attorney General Attorney General Alan McCrory Wilson and Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka, of Columbia; and Dana M. Thye, of Columbia, for Respondent.

          PER CURIAM.

         We granted Petitioner's request to hear this declaratory judgment action in our original jurisdiction. Petitioner asks us to declare section 44-23-410 of the South Carolina Code (2018) unconstitutional because it precludes summary courts from ordering competency evaluations when there is a question of a defendant's competence to stand trial. Because we hold section 44-23-410 does not preclude summary courts from ordering competency evaluations, we decline to hold section 44-23-410 unconstitutional.

         FACTS

         Petitioner was charged with disorderly conduct, and the case was called for trial in the City of Columbia municipal court. At trial, Petitioner's attorney moved for a competency evaluation. Following a hearing on the issue, the municipal court found there was reason to believe Petitioner lacked the capacity to understand the proceedings against her or to assist in her own defense as a result of a lack of mental capacity. Although the court found Petitioner was entitled to a competency evaluation, the court held it did not have the authority to order a competency evaluation because the language of section 44-23-410 (2018) limits the authority to order evaluations to circuit courts and family courts. Accordingly, the court denied the motion for a competency evaluation and stayed all proceedings in Petitioner's case.[1]

         LAW

         "A person who is: (1) found [in public] in a grossly intoxicated condition or otherwise conducts himself in a disorderly or boisterous manner . . . is guilty of a misdemeanor" entitled "public disorderly conduct." S.C. Code Ann. § 16-17-530(A) (Supp. 2019). Subsection 16-17-530(A) provides that "upon conviction," the defendant "must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or be imprisoned for not more than thirty days." Summary courts[2] "shall have exclusive jurisdiction of all criminal cases in which the punishment does not exceed a fine of one hundred dollars or imprisonment for thirty days." S.C. Code Ann. § 22-3-540 (2007).[3] Therefore, a defendant charged with disorderly conduct may not be tried in circuit court, but must be tried in the exclusive jurisdiction of the summary court.

         However, a person who lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing a defense may not be subjected to a trial. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171 (1975). This prohibition is "fundamental to an adversary system of justice." Id. at 172. The conviction of an accused person who is legally incompetent violates due process, and state procedures must be adequate to protect this right. Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 378 (1966). Therefore, a summary court must have the power to order that an expert evaluate a defendant the court suspects lacks competency, to determine whether the court's suspicion is valid. Otherwise, due process prevents the court from proceeding to trial.

         Section 44-23-410(A) (2018) provides, in part:

Whenever a judge of the circuit court or family court has reason to believe that a person on trial before him, charged with the commission of a criminal offense or civil contempt, is not fit to stand trial because the person lacks the capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense as a result of a lack of mental capacity, the judge shall: (1) order examination of the person [by the Department of Mental Health or the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs]; or (2) order the person committed for examination and observation to an appropriate facility of the Department of Mental Health or the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs."

Nothing in section 44-23-410 references summary courts or their authority to order competency evaluations. Rather, section 44-23-410 provides procedural requirements for circuit courts and family courts ordering competency evaluations. However, there is also nothing in section 44-23-410 prohibiting a summary court from ordering an evaluation. To construe the section as prohibiting a summary court from ordering an evaluation when the court suspects the defendant is not competent would render the section unconstitutional. "We will not construe statutes to be unconstitutional when susceptible to a constitutional interpretation." Hampton v. Haley, 403 ...


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