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.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

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 or 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.) A defendant can waive (give up) their right to a speedy trial by agreeing to the proceedings moving slower than the law provides.

Right to a Speedy Trial Under the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment states that: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial...."

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

  • avoiding lengthy unfounded imprisonment (being held in jail pretrial)
  • 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 can fade over time).

What Is a Speedy Trial?

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.

When Does the Clock Start on the Right to a Speedy Trial?

Typically, the accused's arrest or the filing of criminal charges triggers the right to a speedy trial and starts the clock. However, it's never that simple. State and federal laws allow the government to exclude certain time periods from their speedy-trial calculations. Time that can't be "charged against" the government might include time needed for the court to consider a plea deal or pretrial motion, time needed to transfer a case, or a delay for "good cause." Also, any delays caused by the defendant (say by leaving the jurisdiction) are not used to calculate speedy trial deadlines.

How Courts Determine a Speedy-Trial Violation

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, federal courts must adhere to the provisions of the federal Speedy Trial Act. Similarly, where state law is involved, there are often benchmarks indicating when a trial should be started. 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.

Consequences for a Speedy-Trial Violation

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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