Criminal Law (not advice request) - Does anyone ever plead Insanity for minor offenses?

It seems, in the public mindset, the insanity plea (not guilty by reason of insanity) is associated with major felonies with major jail time and/or the death penalty, such as murder or rape. Certainly, in police and court dramas that is so.

When I look at the plea in a legal context, I don’t see any indication that it is only available for murder and rape.

Has anyone ever raised an insanity plea for a more minor offense, such as theft, fraud, forgery, posession of contraband, simple assault, or a traffic offense?

“Your honor, my client, according to the testimony of his physician, has schizophrenia and, due to that condition, was unable to recognize the meaning of a “stop” sign on the night of the fifth when he was stopped, therefore I ask that he be found not guilty by reason of insanity”.

It seems that it would normally be a bad thing to do, since one can plainly see that swapping a term in jail or prison with a maximum duration that is not very long for indefinite confinement in a mental institution (until the doctors and the judge feel you are “cured”, however that is defined) is a bad bet. E.g. the possibility of spending 20 years in a mental hospital for stealing a loaf of bread.

"I went to court for a parking ticket. I pleaded insanity. I said, “Your honor, why would anyone in their right mind park in the passing lane?”

                                                                                             **-Steven Wright**

I believe this has been covered on SD, though my search skillz seem to be absent.

But basically the insanity plea is used very rarely, less than 1% of all criminal cases. This is mainly because it is no cushy option: the defendent may spend longer in a mental institution than they would have in prison.

That’s why I’m wondering about its use for lesser offenses - who in their right mind (sorry) would think that it would be a better idea to gamble at possibly spending the rest of their life in a mental ward over risking 30 days in jail and 6 months probation for a drug possession offense? Which leads me to suspect that if the insanity defense is rare in murder trials, it is even rarer in drug and shoplifting cases (though I could see why the defense would theoretically work and I can understand how a person could be insane enough to not understand the ramifications of their actions in possessing drugs or shoplifting such that the defense would seem to be valid)

It’s also jurisdiction dependent.

Where there is a huge or unmitigable penalty for offences like murder, people are keen to rush off to try their hand with a psych defence.

For minor offences, you’d be crazy (yeah, i know) to get yourself entangled in the mental health system, so most just plead guilty and suck it up.

The exception is where someone accused of a relatively minor offence is so mad that they can’t give their lawyers sensible instructions. There are sometimes diversional possibilities to keep these people out of the criminal punishment system without a full-blown psych trial.

The fact that a very high proportion of prison inmates suffer from frank mental illness supports the proposition that the defence is not popular for whatever reason.

Some points:

1)Why would you spend ten(s) of thousands of dollars to raise a successful insanity affirmative defense for robbing your five-and-dime?

There is no legal reason that I know of that limits the affirmative defense of diminished mental capacity to the most serious of felonies, but there are practical reasons. That’s why it’s associated with major major felonies.

2)And, as others have pointed out, it’s not exactly that you get to walk away scott free.

  1. Insanity affects the mens rea element of the crime. For crimes as in the OPs example where it’s a traffic violation, those are typically strict liability crimes for which no mens rea element exists. In those cases, the defense is inapplicable because the prosecution doesn’t need to prove mental state.
    However, I will comment on Noel Prosequi post though:

a) the OP is not talking about competence to stand trial - he’s talking about the affirmative defense of insanity which negates the mens rea element of a crime.

b) observing a proliferation of mental illness amongst prison populations gives you no data whatsoever to assess why either competency to stand trial, diminished capacity, or temporary insanity isn’t more commonly used as a legal tactic.

IIRC the figures support the notion that a high rate of frank mental illness exists among post-conviction prisoners. Remand prisoners awaiting trial have a high rate too, but your point is sound with respect to them that a high rate of mental illness in pre-trial prisoners tells us nothing.

And my point (if not expressed with sufficient clarity) was not that this is conclusive proof, merely that a high rate of frank mental illness in the post conviction prison population suggests that they have chosen, for whatever reason, not to run a psych defence which might well have been available. I am well aware that this is not proof by itself, but it is a data point.

Maybe someone on the third of their three strikes? I have no cites about whether that actually happens, but it’s one situation where it might well make sense.

I went to college at a Southern school famous for its Honor System. A friend of mine, active in student government, got caught with his hand in the till to the tune of a couple of grand, an Honor Offense that warrants expulsion. At the formal Honor Hearing, he claimed extreme emotional hardship at the time of the offenses (Not quite the insanity defense, but in the same ballpark). Instead of outright expulsion, he was suspended with the option of re-applying to the school at a later date. After several years of applying and being turned down, he wound up finishing at another university.

No criminal court was involved and no criminal charges were filed. I hope this is relevant to the OP’s question, though obviously not 100% on target.

I spent years as a full time Prosecutor and a Defense Attorney, and still practice criminal law, though not full time. In my jurisdiction, yes.

In my state (and most states I am aware of) have a procedure where any “voice” in the initial hearing (i.e. the Judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney or the Defendant) may request a criminal psych eval, the same path as a “not guilty by reason of mental illness” plea (NGMI). Many minor offense Defendants brought before the arraignment judge who complan of hearing voices or the like have the judge enter a not guilty plea on their behalf and start the evaluation process.

I would say that the majority of the NGMI ples that had credibility started out as minor “community policing” offenses - trespass, breach opf peace, alcohol offenses because the mentally ill often self medicate with drugs and alcohol. They are brought in, often out of the freezing cold, sent through the evaluation process, given treatment (usually a warm place to be while they re-establish thier use of meds) and then released. I, myself, was part of our areas mental illness task force, and often used the NGMI eval process to get people treatment that would have otherwise been without help.

It happens here often, and is extremely helpful to the community and the defendant.

For drug cases, many jurisdictions have diversion programs that allow you to avoid jail time or (in some cases) even a criminal record if you successfully complete a treatment program. These programs often have a general mental-health component to them.