Rule 601. Competency.
(a) General Rule. Every person is competent to be a witness except as otherwise provided by statute or in these rules.
(b) Disqualification for Specific Defects. A person is incompetent to testify if the court finds that because of a mental condition or immaturity the person:
(1) is, or was, at any relevant time, incapable of perceiving accurately;
(2) is unable to express himself or herself so as to be understood either directly or through an interpreter;
(3) has an impaired memory; or
(4) does not sufficiently understand the duty to tell the truth.
Pa.R.E. 601(a) differs from F.R.E. 601(a). It is consistent, instead, with Pennsylvania statutory law. 42 Pa.C.S. § § 5911 and 5921 provide that all witnesses are competent except as otherwise provided. Pennsylvania statutory law provides several instances in which witnesses are incompetent. See, e.g., 42 Pa.C.S. § 5922 (persons convicted in a Pennsylvania court of perjury incompetent in civil cases); 42 Pa.C.S. § 5924 (spouses incompetent to testify against each other in civil cases with certain exceptions set out in 42 Pa.C.S. § § 5925, 5926, and 5927); 42 Pa.C.S. § § 59305933 and 20 Pa.C.S. § 2209 (Dead Mans statutes).
Pa.R.E. 601(b) has no counterpart in the Federal Rules. It is consistent with Pennsylvania law concerning the factors for determining competency of a person to testify, including persons with a mental defect and children of tender years. See Commonwealth v. Baker, 466 Pa. 479, 353 A.2d 454 (1976) (standards for determining competency generally); Commonwealth v. Goldblum, 498 Pa. 455, 447 A.2d 234 (1982) (mental capacity); Rosche v. McCoy, 397 Pa. 615, 156 A.2d 307 (1959) (immaturity).
Pennsylvania case law recognizes two other grounds for incompetency, a childs tainted testimony, and hypnotically refreshed testimony. In Commonwealth v. Delbridge, 578 Pa. 641, 855 A.2d 27 (2003), the Supreme Court reiterated concern for the susceptibility of children to suggestion and fantasy and held that a child witness can be rendered incompetent to testify where unduly suggestive or coercive interview techniques corrupt or taint the childs memory and ability to testify truthfully about that memory. See also Commonwealth v. Judd, 897 A.2d 1224 (Pa. Super. 2006).
In Commonwealth v. Nazarovitch, 496 Pa. 97, 436 A.2d 170 (1981), the Supreme Court rejected hypnotically refreshed testimony, where the witness had no prior independent recollection. Applying the test of Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D.C. Cir. 1923) for scientific testimony, the Court was not convinced that the process of hypnosis as a means of restoring forgotten or repressed memory had gained sufficient acceptance in its field. Commonwealth v. Nazarovitch, supra; see also Commonwealth v. Romanelli, 522 Pa. 222, 560 A.2d 1384 (1989) (when witness has been hypnotized, he or she may testify concerning matters recollected prior to hypnosis, but not about matters recalled only during or after hypnosis); Commonwealth v. Smoyer, 505 Pa. 83, 476 A.2d 1304 (1984) (same). Pa.R.E 601(b) is not intended to change these results. For the constitutional implications when a defendant in a criminal case, whose memory has been hypnotically refreshed, seeks to testify, see Rock v. Arkansas, 483 U.S. 44 (1987).
The application of the standards in Pa.R.E. 601(b) is a factual question to be resolved by the court as a preliminary question under Rule 104. The party challenging competency bears the burden of proving grounds of incompetency by clear and convincing evidence. Commonwealth v. Delbridge, 578 Pa. at 664, 855 A.2d at 40. In Commonwealth v. Washington, 554 Pa. 559, 722 A.2d 643 (1998), a case involving child witnesses, the Supreme Court announced a per se rule requiring trial courts to conduct competency hearings outside the presence of the jury. Expert testimony has been used when competency under these standards has been an issue. See e.g., Commonwealth v. Baker, 466 Pa. 479, 353 A.2d 454 (1976); Commonwealth v. Gaerttner, 335 Pa. Super. 203, 484 A.2d 92 (1984).
Adopted May 8, 1998, effective October 1, 1998; amended November 2, 2007, effective December 14, 2007; rescinded and replaced January 17, 2013, effective March 18, 2013.
Committee Explanatory Reports:
Final Report explaining the January 17, 2013 rescission and replacement published with the Courts Order at 43 Pa.B. 651 (February 2, 2013).
The provisions of this Rule 601 amended November 2, 2007, effective December 14, 2007, 37 Pa.B. 6200; rescinded and replaced January 17, 2013, effective in sixty days, 43 Pa.B. 620. Immediately preceding text appears at serial pages (360807) to (360808).
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