Dismissal of Charges pursuant to Section 7403(e) of the Mental Health Procedures Act

Commonwealth v. Humphrey, 2021 WL 1616879 (Pa. Super.) (unreported), allocatur granted Nov. 10, 2021, appeal dockets 81 & 82 MAP 2021

In this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will examine the dismissal of criminal charges pursuant to 50 P.S. § 7403(e) of the Mental Health Procedures Act (“MHPA”), 50 P.S. § 71701, et. seq.

Superior Court summarized the background as follows:

At docket number 2008 of 2017, the Commonwealth charged Appellee [Jquan Humphrey] with one count of aggravated harassment by a prisoner, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2703.1, based on September 13, 2017 incident in which Appellee, while an inmate at SCI Brenner Township, allegedly threw a bag of urine on a corrections officer. At docket number 260 of 2018, the Commonwealth charged Appellee with another count of aggravated harassment by a prisoner, based on a November 11, 2017 incident in which he allegedly spat on a corrections officer at SCI Brenner Township.

Appellee’s counsel filed a motion for an examination of Appellee’s competence to stand trial, and the trial court granted that motion on September 21, 2018 with the Commonwealth’s agreement.  After a May 16, 2019 hearing on that matter, the Commonwealth agreed that Appellee was not competent to stand trial. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court stayed the prosecution and directed that Appellee undergo sixty days of involuntary treatment through the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (“DOC”). DOC contacted the Commonwealth on July 5, 2019, expressing uncertainty as to what to do in response to the trial court’s order. The trial court entered an amended order on July 8, 2019, explaining that Appellee was to receive treatment pursuant to the MHPA. On August 14, 2019 DOC’s legal department informed the Commonwealth that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (“DHS”), not DOC, was the agency responsible for providing competency restoration services. On October 25, 2019, the trial court signed an order directing Appellee’s transfer to Torrance State Hospital Forensic Psychiatric Center (“Torrance”) for competency restoration. On November 14, 2019, Torrance issued a letter denying entry to Appellee because he was a state inmate. Admission to Torrance would be available to Appellee only upon his parole or completion of his maximum sentence.

Slip op. at 2-3 (footnotes omitted). Humphrey filed motions to dismiss the charges on the basis that he was unlikely to regain competency and that a trial on the underlying charges would be unjust due to the passage of time. The Commonwealth opposed the motion and requested that Humphrey be reexamined because there had been no competency examination after the initial evaluation that was the subject of the May 16, 2019 hearing.  Following a hearing, the trial court dismissed the charges based on Section 7403(e) of the MHPA, which provides:

(e) Resumption of Proceedings or Dismissal.–When the court, on its own motion or upon the application of the attorney for the Commonwealth or counsel for the defendant, determines that such person has regained his competence to proceed, the proceedings shall be resumed. If the court is of the opinion that by reason of the passage of time and its effect upon the criminal proceedings it would be unjust to resume the prosecution, the court may dismiss the charge and order the person discharged.

Relying on the second sentence of Section 7403(e), the trial court concluded, “[w]hen there is a substantial probability that competency will not be restored for the foreseeable future, dismissal is appropriate.” Slip op. at 4, quoting Trial Court Opinion, at 3 (citing Commonwealth v. McGargle, 549 A.2d 198, 199 (Pa. Super. 1988).

The Commonwealth appealed the dismissal, arguing that based on the first sentence of § 7403(e), a decision on resumption or dismissal of proceedings occurs only after the trial court has determined that the defendant is competent to stand trial, which did not occur here.

Superior Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of charges against Humphrey on the basis that under § 7403(e) as construed in McGargle and Hazur, the trial court lacked statutory authority to dismiss the charges because it found that Humphrey remains incompetent. Superior Court determined that McGargle controls, however the trial court erred in citing McGargle for the proposition that dismissal is warranted where there is no probability that the defendant will regain competence, explaining:

In McGargle, the trial court found “a substantial probability that [the defendant’s] incompetence will continue in the foreseeable future[,]” and therefore dismissed the charges. McGargle, 549 A.2d at 199. The McGargle Court reversed:

If the person regains competence, but the court is of the opinion that by reason of the passage of time and its effect on the proceedings it would be unjust to resume the prosecution, the court may dismiss the charges. 50 P.S. § 7403(e). Since appellee has not, and in all likelihood will not, regain competence, this section does not apply either. See, Commonwealth v. Hazur, 539 A.2d 451 (Pa. Super. 1988). We are not directed to, nor have we been able to find, either statutory or case law which provides for the dismissal of charges where the accused is incompetent and expected to remain so forever, as appears to be the case here. While we concede the pointlessness of reversing the trial court and reinstating charges for which appellee will most likely never stand trial, we are constrained to do so, absent any statutory authority for dismissal.

Id. (emphasis added). Likewise, in Hazur, this Court wrote, “[d]ismissal of the charges is only appropriate when a defendant is found incompetent and then regains competency but too much time has lapsed in the interim making it unjust to continue the prosecution.” Hazur, 539 A.2d at 454.

Slip op. at 5-6. As it did in Hazur, Superior acknowledged the “pointlessness of reinstating charges for which the defendant may never stand trial” and that Humphrey may not be able to receive competency restoration services. Id. at 6. However, the court concluded:

Despite these complications, this panel is bound to adhere to § 7403(e) as construed by McGargle and Hazur. Section 7403(e) has not been amended since this Court decided those cases, and their holdings are binding here. Any change in the law must come from an en banc panel of this Court, our Pennsylvania Supreme Court, or the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Slip op. at 6.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur as to the following issues:

(1) Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in dismissing charges against Petitioner pursuant to 50 P.S. § 7403, even though this penal statute provides for the dismissal of charges against an individual when a trial court feels continued prosecution would be unjust?

(2) Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in dismissing charges against Petitioner pursuant to 50 P.S. § 7403 where the [t]rial [c]ourt had before it significant information accumulated over nine months expended on these matters, and where the [t]rial [c]ourt found that, due to Petitioner’s severe incompetence and passage of time, it would already be unjust to ever resume prosecution?

(3) Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in dismissing charges against Petitioner pursuant to 50 P.S. § 7403 instead of ordering another competency evaluation, despite the fact that Petitioner had not undergone any competency restoration services and that the [t]rial [c]ourt had already found that it would be unjust for Petitioner to be prosecuted in the future?


For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.