The Right to a Speedy Trial

If the government doesn't get a defendant to trial within a certain amount of time, the court must toss the charges.

Updated May 26, 2016

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of the individual states guarantee the right to a speedy trial. Under the federal constitution, there is no precise measurement of what is and isn’t “speedy.” But many states and the federal government have laws specifying the time within which prosecutors must bring defendants to trial.

For example, in California, the government must get a defendant charged with a felony to trial within 60 days of arraignment on an indictment or information unless there is “good cause” for delay. (Cal. Penal Code § 1382.) Of course, the defendant can waive any potential speedy-trial claim by agreeing to the proceedings moving slower than the law provides.

Reasons for the Right

Among the justifications for the right to a speedy trial are:

  • avoiding lengthy unfounded imprisonment
  • minimizing the anxiety of awaiting case resolution, and
  • protecting the defendant’s ability to defend against charges (for example, evidence may disappear and witnesses’ memories may fade over time).

Not So Fast

The term “speedy” is relative in the legal context. What constitutes a speedy trial in one instance might not in another. In general, though, a speedy trial is one that occurs as soon as reasonably possible, subject to qualifications.

In one murder case, for example, a federal appeals court upheld the finding that a 16-month delay between arrest and trial didn’t violate the Sixth Amendment speedy-trial right. (Amos v. Thornton, 646 F.3d 199 (5th Cir. 2011).) The court in that case observed that the delay between accusation and trial becomes “presumptively prejudicial” near the one-year mark.  It found no compelling reasons for the delay and noted that the defendant promptly asserted his speedy-trial right while the proceedings were pending. But the defendant couldn’t show that the delay compromised his defense, and that inability doomed his claim.

Factors

Courts undertake a speedy-trial analysis that differs depending on the law that's at hand. Under the U.S. Constitution, there’s no set time for a speedy trial. Therefore, when a defendant claims a violation, the court applies a “balancing test,” assessing:

  • the length of the delay
  • the reason for it
  • whether the defendant asserted the speedy-trial right, and
  • whether the wait compromised the defense.

Apart from the constitutional right, in the federal courts, there's a separate speedy-trial right in the Speedy Trial Act. Similarly, where state law is involved, there's often a benchmark for the speedy-trial evaluation. For some states, the deadlines are strict, while in others, if the time limit has passed, a court must weigh factors like those in the federal constitutional balancing test.

Starting the Clock

Usually, the time between filing of charges (through, for example a complaint or an indictment) and the suspect’s arrest counts against the time the government has to get the case to trial. That’s because the constitutional right to a speedy trial typically “attaches” on the date of arrest or presentation of formal charges, whichever happens first. (Ward v. State, 311 Ga.App. 425 (2011).)

Despite the judicial desire to protect against prolonged pretrial anxiety, the constitutional right to speedy trial isn’t triggered by mere suspicion, but only by arrest or formal charges. (State v. Glazebrook, 282 Neb. 412 (2011).) And any time that the defendant spends avoiding arrest typically doesn’t count against the government.

A RIGHT TO SPEEDY SENTENCING?

Many states and the federal government have statutes designed to prevent long delays between not only being accused and being tried, but also between being convicted and being sentenced. But the U.S. Supreme Court has established that the Sixth Amendment speedy-trial guarantee generally doesn't apply to sentencing delay. (Betterman v. Montana, 578 U. S. ____ (2016).)

In the Supreme Court case in question, local authorities kept a man in jail for more than 14 months after his guilty plea before getting around to his sentencing. The Court found that the Sixth Amendment speedy-trial protection doesn’t apply to such scenarios.

The ruling did, however, have limits, including in terms of "bifurcated" proceedings like death penalty trials. It also didn't determine how the right to due process would apply to the presentencing-delay scenario. Plus, as with the getting-to-trial issue, many states and the federal government have statutes and rules on sentencing timing. For example, a federal rule says that judges must "impose sentence without unnecessary delay." (Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 32(b)(1).)

Consequences

If a convicted defendant can establish a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial, the court must set aside the conviction, vacate the sentence, and dismiss the charging document. (United States v. Villarreal, 613 F.3d 1344 (11th Cir. 2010).) If the case hasn’t yet gone to trial, the court must generally dismiss the charges.

Consult a Lawyer

If you think you might have a speedy-trial argument, whether you’ve already been convicted or are awaiting trial, consult a lawyer. A knowledgeable attorney can advise you of the law in your jurisdiction and how it applies to your case. A lawyer can explain whether, if you’re successful in your claim, the government can refile charges. And an attorney can explain the pros and cons of “waiving time”—that is, giving up your right to a speedy trial.

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