You have a right to a speedy trial—that is, to have a judge or jury evaluate within some reasonable period of time whether you’re guilty. The Sixth Amendment speedy-trial guarantee is supposed to prevent inordinate delays between the government charging someone and bringing the case to trial.
But what about delay between the defendant pleading or being found guilty and being sentenced? Does the speedy-trial rule apply there? Courts had been divided on that issue until May of 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held that it does not.
In the case in question, Betterman v. Montana, the defendant pleaded guilty to bail jumping. (578 U. S. ____ (2016).) Local authorities then kept him in jail for more than 14 months before getting around to his sentencing. (One of the defendant’s arguments to the courts while waiting was that he was losing out by being held in jail rather than prison, where he would go after sentencing.)
The U.S. Supreme Court found that the Sixth Amendment speedy-trial protection doesn’t apply to such scenarios, noting that the safeguard is aimed at the determination of guilt, not punishment. In effect, the Court said that a defendant who’s already been found guilty has less on the line than one who hasn’t.
Not surprisingly, though, the Betterman opinion had caveats. For instance, the Court observed that its decision didn’t necessarily apply to “bifurcated” proceedings that involve the determination of facts that can increase a sentencing range. (The prime example is a death penalty trial, with its separate guilt and penalty phases.) In addition, the Court’s opinion didn’t establish how a different constitutional protection—the right to due process—would apply to the presentencing-delay scenario. Plus, as always, we have to keep in mind that states (and even the federal government) can have rules that protect defendants more than the U.S. Constitution does.