In Arizona, the insanity defense is a legal defense to a criminal charge. Under ARS 13-502, a defendant can be found guilty except insane if, at the time of the offense, he or she did not know that the criminal act was wrong. If found insane, the defendant will be sentenced to the Department of Corrections but placed in a mental health facility.
1. What is Arizona’s insanity defense under ARS 13-502?
Arizona’s insanity defense is governed by ARS 13-502. This statute allows criminal defendants to be found guilty except insane if they had a mental illness or disease that kept them from knowing that the criminal act was wrong.1
The insanity defense is an affirmative defense in Arizona.2 This means that the burden of proof is on the defendant. They have to show with clear and convincing evidence that, at the time of the crime, they did not know that their criminal act was wrong.3
The defense is different in Arizona than in most other states. Many other states, including California, use the M’Naghten Rule as the insanity test in their criminal laws.4 This rule allows defendants to win an acquittal, or be deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, if a mental defect made them:
- unaware of what they were doing, or
- unable to tell if their actions were wrong or not.
Some other states, like Idaho, Kansas, Montana, and Utah, have abolished the insanity defense from their criminal justice system, entirely.
2. Are there any mental health issues that do not count?
ARS 13-502 explicitly states that there are several mental disorders that do not rise to the level of legal insanity. These cannot be used to support the defense. They include:
- voluntary intoxication,
- withdrawal from drugs or alcohol,
- character defects,
- psychosexual disorders, or
- impulse control disorders.5
Additionally, if the offense happened because the defendant was under any of the following temporary emotional conditions at the time, it cannot be used to support an insanity defense in Arizona:
- duress or any intense pressure of the circumstances,
- moral decadence,
- depravity, or
- extreme passion from anger, jealousy, revenge, or hatred.6
According to the Supreme Court of Arizona and the U.S. Supreme Court, evidence of these emotional or mental conditions cannot be used to challenge the necessary mental state, or mens rea, of the crime. Under Arizona law, the expert testimony of a mental health issue can only be used to prove insanity, not raise reasonable doubts as to whether the defendant could form the necessary level of intent or criminal responsibility to commit the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forbidding this expert testimony did not violate the defendant’s Due Process rights.7
3. What is the process for raising it?
Defendants in Arizona who want to raise the insanity defense have to let the court know of their intent to do so. They can then plead guilty except insane.
The plea will trigger a hearing.
If the offense involved death or a serious injury, or the threat of death or serious injury, and the court finds that there is a reasonable basis to support the plea of insanity, then the judge can send the defendant to a mental health facility for up to 30 days for treatment. The defendant will have to pay the costs of this treatment if he or she is able to do so.8
Whether the defendant is confined before the hearing or not, mental health experts will observe and examine the defendant. They will create a report about the defendant and send it to the court, prosecutor, and criminal defense attorney.9
If the defendant voluntarily gets a mental health examination, Arizona law requires them to divulge the results of that test to the prosecutor.10
At this hearing, it is up to the defendant to prove that he or she did not know that the criminal act was wrong. They have to prove this by clear and convincing evidence.11
4. What happens if the defense is successful?
If the defendant is found insane by the judge or jury, the court will issue a guilty except insane verdict. The case will proceed to the sentencing hearing. At the hearing, the judge will sentence the defendant to a term of confinement with the Arizona Department of Corrections and send him or her to a state mental health facility. During the term of confinement, the defendant will be under the supervision of a psychiatric security review board.12
If the offense did not involve a death or serious injury, or the threat of death or serious injury, then the court will set a hearing before the psychiatric security review board for within 75 days of the defendant’s commitment in a mental health facility. 14 days before this hearing, the director of the facility will file a report with the court concerning the defendant’s mental health and whether they are a danger.13
At the hearing, if the defendant can show clear and convincing evidence that they are not dangerous and no longer suffer from their mental disease, he or she will be released, unless the court determines that the defendant is likely to commit another crime.14 If the defendant fails to show this, the prosecutor will initiate civil commitment proceedings.15
If the offense did involve a death or serious injury, or the threat of either, the defendant will be held in confinement at a mental health institution for at least 120 days before a hearing can be scheduled.16 The hearing will be held by a psychiatric security review board. If the board finds that the defendant is:
- no longer dangerous and unlikely to commit another crime, it will release the defendant on supervised release,
- dangerous and still suffering from a mental disease, it will keep the defendant in the mental hospital, or
- dangerous or is likely to commit another crime, but no longer needs mental health treatment, it will transfer the defendant to prison under the Arizona Department of Corrections for the remainder of his or her sentence.17
Whether it is spent in a mental health facility, prison, or on supervised release, the length of the term will be the presumptive prison sentence that the offense carried. However, the judge will not enhance the sentence due to prior felony convictions.18
If a defendant is found guilty except insane, it will not be considered a prior felony conviction that could enhance a later sentence.19
5. How is this different from being found incompetent to stand trial?
The insanity defense is different from being deemed incompetent to stand trial in Arizona under Rule 11.
Defendants who successfully prove the insanity defense are still sentenced to a prison term, though they may spend much of that time in a mental hospital.
Defendants who are deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, on the other hand, are sent to a mental health treatment facility until they are competent. At that point, the criminal case will resume.
The standard for incompetence to stand trial is also different from the standard for insanity:
- to be insane, the defendant must not have known that their criminal act was wrong, while
- to be incompetent to stand trial, the defendant must either be unable to understand the court proceedings or cannot assist in their defense.20
- ARS 13-502(A).
- ARS 13-502(C).
- California Criminal Jury Instructions 3450.
- ARS 13-502(A).
- State v. Mott, 187 Ariz. 536 (1997) and Clark v. Arizona, 548 U.S. 735 (2006).
- ARS 13-502(B).
- State v. Hegyi, 396 P.3d 1095 (2017) and Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure 11.4(b).
- ARS 13-502(C).
- ARS 13-502(D).
- ARS 13-3994(B).
- ARS 13-3994(C)(1).
- ARS 13-3994(C)(2).
- ARS 13-3994(D) and (F).
- ARS 13-3994(F).
- ARS 13-502(D).
- ARS 13-502(E).
- Arizona Rules of Criminal Procedure (Ariz. R. Crim. P.) 11.1(a)(2), Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960), and State v. Moody, 208 Ariz. 424 (2004).