WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — A woman, through her guardian, has filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Wichita. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, claims the city violates the constitutional rights of defendants who are mentally incompetent to stand trial.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the woman who has been diagnosed with unspecified schizophrenia spectrum and stimulant use disorder. She had been arrested a couple of times, including for alleged possession of drug paraphernalia, petty theft, and public urination.
The cases went to Wichita Municipal Court. The woman’s guardian and attorneys Kurt Kerns and Mark Schoenhofer claim Wichita’s court system did not allow lawyers or the judge to order a competency evaluation for her.
The lawyers say the woman was convicted twice this year despite her incompetence and was wrongfully detained in jail for more than two months awaiting sentencing.
“The actions and omissions and failures of Defendant demonstrated deliberate indifference to the deprivation of the Due Process rights of mentally incompetent individuals, i.e., a fair trial and the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit claims that Wichita does not provide funds or procedures for judges to order competency evaluations. The lawyers say that Wichita Municipal Court forces mentally incompetent people to submit to a trial or to enter a plea of guilty or no contest, even though the person is unable to understand the proceedings.
Once the person is found guilty, their attorney can appeal the case in district court, where judges have the ability to order mental evaluations. While that plays out, defendants who are unable to bond out “often serve lengthy jail sentences” according to the lawsuit.
The lawyers claim this violates the defendant’s due process rights to a fair trial.
“What you should be doing is determining if they are competent in the first instance and if the answer is no, you don’t get to proceed because our United States Constitution protects people from trial if they aren’t competent enough to understand what’s going on at trial,” Kerns said.
The lawsuit claims a lot of mentally incompetent defendants never get their cases appealed because they are often represented by city public defenders who do not file appeals.
The lawyers also say the city knows there is a problem.
“Despite repeated objections over the years by defense counsel, the City of Wichita Municipal Court has knowingly, deliberately and intentionally subjected mentally incompetent individuals to trial and/or a change of plea,” the lawsuit claims. “Mentally incompetent citizens have been convicted, sentenced, and jailed despite mental defects and disorders, which render them incapable of understanding the nature and consequences of the proceedings against them or in assisting properly in their defenses.”
The lawyers expect more families will join the class action lawsuit because they say this has been happening for years in Wichita Municipal Court.
The lawsuit is seeking the setting aside of convictions and the release of each member in the class action lawsuit. It also wants the court to order “the City of Wichita to shut its doors if it cannot comply with the United States Constitution.”
It also seeks reimbursement of court costs, fines and fees for each member of the lawsuit with awards in excess of $75,000.
KSN News reached out to the city for comment. A spokesperson said the city does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Wichita does have a Mental Health Court, but it does not determine competency. The lawyers claim it is only available after the defendant is found guilty. It is an alternative to conventional sentencing.