The term is a social and legal term rather than a medical one, and indicates a condition which renders the affected person unfit to enjoy liberty of action because of the unreliability of his behavior with concomitant danger to himself and others. The term is more or less synonymous with mental illness or psychosis.
In law, the term is used to denote that degree of mental illness which negates the individual's legal responsibility or capacity.
@ Insanity as Defense to Crime
There are various tests used by the courts to determine criminal responsibility, or lack thereof, of a defendant who asserts the defense that he or she was insane at the time of the crime. A frequently used test as provided in Section 4.01 of the Model Penal Code is as follows: "A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality (wrongfulness) of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law." Under this test there must be a sufficient causal link between the defendant's mental disease or defect and his inability to control his behavior. U.S. v. Jackson, 553 F.2d 109, 113, 179 U.S.App.D.C. 375.
This test, as defined by the American Law Institute, has been adopted (sometimes with slight modifications) by a number of states and also in most federal courts.
See 18 U.S.C.A. No. 4241.
If a defendant intends to rely upon the defense of insanity at the time of the alleged crime, he is required to notify the attorney for the government of such intention. Fed.R.Crim.P. 12.2.; 18 U.S.C.A. No. 4242.
It is an affirmative defense to a prosecution under any Federal statute that, at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense. 18 U.S.C.A. No.No. 17(a), 4241.
In certain states, once the insanity defense is made the burden is on the prosecution to prove that the defendant is mentally competent, while in others the burden is on the defense to prove the defendant is insane. In federal criminal cases, the defendant has the burden of proving the defense of insanity by clear and convincing evidence. 18 U.S.C.A. No. 17.
See also automatism
- irresistible impulse; M'Naghten Rule and right and wrong test, for various other tests used by courts to determine criminal responsibility of defendant who asserts insanity defense.
See also competency
@ Insanity as Affecting Capacity
Capacity to make a will includes an intelligent understanding of the testator's property, its extent and items, and of the nature of the act he is about to perform, together with a clear understanding and purpose as to the manner of its distribution and the persons who are to receive it. Lacking these, the testator is not mentally competent. The presence of insane delusions is not inconsistent with testamentary capacity, if they are of such a nature that they cannot reasonably be supposed to have affected the dispositions made by the will; and the same is true of the various forms of monomania and of all kinds of eccentricity and personal idiosyncrasy. But imbecility, senile dementia, and all forms of systematized mania which affect the understanding and judgment generally disable the person from making a valid will. To constitute "senile dementia," incapacitating one to make a will, there must be such a failure of the mind as to deprive the testator of intelligent action.
See also capacity
As a ground for voiding or annulling a contract or conveyance, insanity does not mean a total deprivation of reason, but an inability, from defect of perception, memory, and judgment, to do the act in question or to understand its nature and consequences. The insanity must have entered into and induced the particular contract or conveyance; it must appear that it was not the act of the free and untrammeled mind, and that on account of the diseased condition of the mind the person entered into a contract or made a conveyance which he would not have made if he had been in the possession of his reason. Most state statutes provide for annulment of a marriage because of insanity.
Insanity sufficient to justify the annulment of a marriage means such a want of understanding at the time of the marriage as to render the party incapable of assenting to the contract of marriage. Also, under most state statutes, insanity, if sufficient in degree and/or duration, constitutes a ground for divorce.
In general, the same degree of mental capacity which enables a person to make a valid deed or will is sufficient to enable him to marry. As a ground for restraining the personal liberty of the person (i.e. commitment), it may be said in general that the form of insanity from which he suffers should be such as to make his going at large a source of danger to himself or to others, though this matter is largely regulated by statute, and in many places the law permits the commitment of persons whose insanity does not manifest itself in homicidal or other destructive forms of mania, but who are incapable of caring for themselves and their property or who are simply fit subjects for treatment in hospitals and other institutions specially designed for the care of such patients, See commitment.
To constitute insanity such as will authorize the appointment of a guardian or conservator, there must be such a deprivation of reason and judgment as to render him incapable of understanding and acting with discretion in the ordinary affairs of life; a want of sufficient mental capacity to transact ordinary business and to take care of and manage his property and affairs. Insanity as a plea or proceeding to avoid the effect of the statute of limitations means practically the same thing as in relation to the appointment of a guardian.
On the one hand, it does not require a total deprivation of reason or absence of understanding. On the other hand, it does not include mere weakness of mind short of imbecility. It means such a degree of derangement as renders the subject incapable of understanding the nature of the particular affair and his rights and remedies in regard to it and incapable of taking discreet and intelligent action.
The time of sanity required in order to allow the statute to begin to run is such as will enable the party to examine his affairs and institute an action, and is for the jury. There are a few other legal rights or relations into which the question of insanity enters, such as the capacity of a witness or of a voter; but they are governed by the same general principles. The test is capacity to understand and appreciate the nature of the particular act and to exercise intelligence in its performance.
A witness must understand the nature and purpose of an oath and have enough intelligence and memory to relate correctly the facts within his knowledge. So a voter must understand the nature of the act to be performed and be able to make an intelligent choice of candidates. In either case, eccentricity, feeble-mindedness not amounting to imbecility, or insane delusions which do not affect the matter in hand, do not disqualify. District of Columbia v. Armes, 107 U.S. 519, 2 S.Ct. 840, 27 L.Ed. 618.

Black's law dictionary. . 1990.

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