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State v. Tarlue

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

May 14, 2015

State of New Hampshire
v.
Robert Tarlue

The defendant, Robert Tarlue, appeals his conviction of failure to report as a registered sex offender, see RSA 651-B:4 (Supp. 2014), and the imposition of previously suspended sentences for simple assault, see RSA 631:2-a (2007), and resisting arrest, see RSA 642:2 (Supp. 2014). He argues that the trial court erred in finding him competent to stand trial and in denying his request for a new competency evaluation. We affirm.

Relying upon both the State and Federal Constitutions, the defendant first argues that the trial court erred in finding him competent to stand trial. We first consider his argument under the State Constitution, using federal cases only to aid in our analysis. State v. Ball, 124 N.H. 226, 231-33 (1983). "A criminal defendant has a constitutional right not to be tried if he is legally incompetent." State v. Decato, 165 N.H. 294, 296 (2013) (quotation omitted). The State bears the burden to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant is competent to stand trial. State v. Moncada, 161 N.H. 791, 795 (2011). We have adopted the two-pronged test for competency set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960). See State v. Champagne, 127 N.H. 266, 270 (1985). This test requires that a defendant have: "(1) a sufficient present ability to consult with and assist his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; and (2) a factual as well as rational understanding of the proceedings against him." Moncada, 161 N.H. at 794 (quotation omitted). "We defer to the trial court's determination of competence unless we conclude that no reasonable fact finder could have found as the trial court did." Decato, 165 N.H. at 296 (quotation omitted).

The defendant first argues that because competency "is not a fixed state, " the court erred in its May 14, 2013 order by equating past competency with present competency. We reject the defendant's characterization of the court's order. In its order, the court stated that its decision was based not only upon the August 16, 2010 plea colloquy demonstrating the defendant's past competency, but also upon the May 2013 testimony of the psychologists who had recently examined him. The court specifically noted that the defendant's expert, Philip J. Kinsler, Ph.D., FACFE, DABPS, opined that the defendant was not competent to stand trial, based upon his January 2, 2013 examination. Dr. Kinsler testified that the defendant suffered from generalized anxiety disorder which, together with his inability to accept the reality that the court could impose his suspended sentences, and his erroneous understanding of legal concepts, rendered him unable to assist his attorney with his defense or to understand the proceedings against him. However, the court afforded greater weight to the opinion of the State's expert, Steven J. Rubenzer, Ph.D., who opined that the defendant was competent to stand trial. The weight to be given testimony is for the trial court to determine. Moncada, 161 N.H. at 795. Moreover, the trial court was not required to delineate its reasons for giving more weight to Dr. Rubenzer's opinion. See id. at 798 (trial court not required to provide reasons unless rejecting uncontroverted evidence of incompetence). Unless we find that no reasonable person could have come to the same conclusion as to the weight to be given to conflicting testimony, we will defer to the trial court. Id. at 795.

The defendant argues that it was unreasonable for the court to credit Dr. Rubenzer's opinion because it was based upon the defendant's competency in 2010. However, the record shows that Dr. Rubenzer properly based his opinion upon the defendant's present competency. Dr. Rubenzer testified that given the defendant's "significant contact with the criminal justice system, " he "would not expect [the defendant] to show the sorts of ignorance that he displayed and inability to learn that he displayed during this evaluation." Dr. Rubenzer testified that he found the defendant's "performance, when asked about the court system to be erratic, that he would sometimes claim not to know some very basic issues, and at other times he would provide fairly sophisticated answers and very articulate ones." When asked to explain the defendant's inconsistent responses, Dr. Rubenzer testified that, in his opinion, "when defendants are placed in a situation where there is an advantage to appearing ignorant or incompetent, many of them respond in such a way as to bring about that result." Consequently, Dr. Rubenzer opined, the defendant "did not present to the best of his ability" in matters involving his knowledge of the court system.

Given the evidence of the defendant's competency, we cannot conclude that no reasonable fact finder could have found as the trial court did. See Moncada, 161 N.H. at 798. Because the State Constitution provides at least as much protection as the Federal Constitution under these circumstances, see id. at 794-95; Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), we reach the same result under the Federal Constitution as we do under the State Constitution.

The defendant next argues that the trial court erred in denying his request for a new competency evaluation after he was unable to complete the June 14, 2013 plea colloquy. We first consider his argument under the State Constitution. Ball, 124 N.H. at 231-33. A trial court, to comply with due process, must order an evidentiary hearing on the issue of competency "whenever a bona fide or legitimate doubt arises whether a criminal defendant is competent to stand trial." State v. Kincaid, 158 N.H. 90, 93 (2008) (quotation omitted). "As the trial court is in the best position to evaluate a criminal defendant's behavior, we grant deference to its decision regarding the need for a competency hearing." Id. (brackets and quotation omitted). In its October 2, 2013 order, the trial court found that the defendant "demonstrated a clear understanding of the charges against him and the issue of guilt or innocence" at the plea colloquy, although the court acknowledged that the defendant "had more difficulty grasping the nuances of the sentencing and parole process." The court suspended the plea hearing to a later date "[b]ecause the defendant was demonstrating fatigue during the colloquy." The defendant subsequently withdrew his notice of intent to plead guilty, and the case was restored to the trial docket. In its order denying the defendant's motion for a new evaluation, the court noted that the defendant "is a native of Liberia and his native language is Kron." The court found that "with patient questioning and the use of an interpreter, he appears to understand the guilty plea colloquy as demonstrated by the transcript of his prior guilty plea." The defendant argues that the court again erred in relying upon evidence of the defendant's competency in 2010. However, the court expressly stated that its decision to deny the motion for a third competency evaluation was based not only upon the evidence of the defendant's earlier competency but "upon the totality of information presently before this court."

Based upon this record, the trial court, in the exercise of its discretion, could reasonably have concluded that no bona fide or legitimate doubt arose as to the defendant's competency evaluation based upon his inability to complete the June 14, 2013 plea colloquy. See id. at 95. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that the trial court erred in denying his request for a new competency evaluation. See id. Because the State Constitution provides at least as much protection as the Federal Constitution under these circumstances, see id.; Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 180 (1975), we reach the same result under the Federal Constitution as we do under the State Constitution.

Affirmed.

DALIANIS, C.J, and CONBOY and LYNN, JJ, ...


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