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The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all persons accused of criminal wrongdoing the right to a speedy trial. Although this right is derived from the federal Constitution, it has been made applicable to state criminal proceedings through the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the due process and equal protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The right to a speedy trial is an ancient liberty. During the reign of henry ii (1154–1189), the English Crown promulgated the Assize of Clarendon, a legal code comprised of 22 articles, one of which promised speedy justice to all litigants. In 1215 the Magna Charta prohibited the king from delaying justice to any person in the realm. Several of the charters of the American colonies protected the right to a speedy trial, as did most of the constitutions of the original 13 states.
The Founding Fathers intended the Speedy Trial Clause to serve two purposes. First, they sought to prevent defendants from languishing in jail for an indefinite period before trial. Pre-trial incarceration is a deprivation of liberty no less serious than post-conviction imprisonment. In some cases pretrial incarceration may be more serious because public scrutiny is often heightened, employment is commonly interrupted, financial resources are diminished, family relations are strained, and innocent persons are forced to suffer prolonged injury to reputation.
Second, the Founding Fathers sought to ensure a defendant's right to a fair trial. The longer the commencement of trial is postponed, the more likely it is that witnesses will disappear, memories will fade, and evidence will be lost or destroyed. Of course, both the prosecution and the defense are threatened by these dangers, but only the defendant's life, liberty, and property are at stake in a criminal proceeding.
The right to a speedy trial does not apply to every stage of a criminal case. It arises only after a person has been arrested, indicted, or otherwise formally accused of a crime by the government. Before the point of formal accusation, the government is under no Sixth Amendment obligation to investigate, accuse, or prosecute a defendant within a specific amount of time.
Nor does the Speedy Trial Clause apply to post-trial criminal proceedings, such as probation and parole hearings. If the government drops criminal charges during the middle of a case, the Speedy Trial Clause does not apply unless the government later refiles the charges, at which point the length of delay is measured only from the time of refiling. However, the fairness requirements of the Due Process Clause apply during each juncture of a criminal case, and an unreasonably excessive delay can be challenged under this constitutional provision even if the delay occurs before formal accusation or after conviction.
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to draw a bright line separating permissible pre-trial delays from delays that are impermissibly excessive. Instead, the Court has developed a balancing test in which the length of delay is just one factor to be considered when evaluating the merits of a speedy trial claim. The other factors to be considered by a court include the reason for the delay, the severity of prejudice suffered by the defendant from the delay, and the stage during the criminal proceedings at which the defendant asserted the right to a speedy trial.
A delay of at least one year in bringing a defendant to trial following arrest will trigger a presumption that the Sixth Amendment has been violated, with the level of judicial scrutiny increasing in direct proportion to the length of delay. A longer delay may be deemed constitutional, however, and a shorter delay may be deemed unconstitutional, depending on the circumstances.
Longer delays will be permitted to accommodate the schedules of important witnesses, and to allow the prosecution to prepare for a complex case. Longer delays will also be tolerated when a defendant is dilatory in asserting the right to a speedy trial. In general, defendants must assert their Sixth Amendment right in a timely motion before the trial court. If the defendant fails to assert the right in this manner or acquiesces in the face of protracted pretrial delays, she or he may not raise the issue for the first time on appeal, unless the defendant's failure to raise the issue earlier was due to her or his attorney's negligence. Defendants who delay prosecution by inundating the trial court with frivolous pretrial motions are also treated as having forfeited their rights to a speedy trial. The law does not allow defendants to profit from their own wrong under these circumstances.
Delays shorter than a year will be ruled unconstitutional if the reason for delay offered by the prosecution is unpersuasive or inappropriate. Delays attributable to prosecutorial misconduct, such as the deliberate attempt by the government to delay a proceeding and hamper the defense, will run afoul of the Speedy Trial Clause. Prosecutorial negligence, such as misplacing a defendant's file or losing incriminating evidence, is also considered an inappropriate reason for delay. Additionally, delays shorter than a year will be deemed unconstitutional when the delay has severely limited the opportunity for the accused to defend himself. For example, the death of an alibi witness who would have been available for a timely trial is considered prima facie evidence of prejudice under the Speedy Trial Clause.
Despite the strictures of the Speedy Trial Clause, criminal justice has not always moved swiftly in the United States. During the 1970s federal courts had backlogs of thousands of cases on their dockets. Lengthy pretrial delays clogged local jails at great expense to taxpayers. Increasing numbers of defendants were jumping bail while free during extended pretrial release. In 1974 Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 3161 et seq.) to ameliorate the situation.
Unlike the balancing test created by the Supreme Court to evaluate a claim under the Speedy Trial Clause, the Speedy Trial Act establishes specific time limits between various stages of federal criminal proceedings. The act requires federal authorities to file an information or indictment within 30 days of a defendant's arrest. A prosecutor who knows that an accused is incarcerated at the time of indictment must take immediate steps to initiate prosecution. If a defendant enters a plea of not guilty, trial must commence within 70 days from the filing of the information or indictment or 70 days from the first appearance of the accused in court, whichever is later.
Certain types of delays are exempted from the act's time limitations. For example, the act exempts delays caused by the absence of the defendant, the unavailability of an essential witness, or the conduct of a codefendant. Delays resulting from a defendant's involvement in other legal proceedings are typically exempted as well. Additionally, the act gives courts discretion to grant the prosecution a continuance in the interests of justice. Courts are also given discretion to dismiss charges when a defendant suffers prejudice from a pretrial delay that is of a kind not exempted under the act.
The Speedy Trial Act has been held to apply to both citizens and non-citizens alike. See United States v. Restrepo, 59 F. Supp. 2d 133 (D. Mass. 1999). However, since the September 11th attacks in 2001, the United States has sought to enhance the abilities of immigration officials and other law enforcement officers to prevent further terrorist attacks. Under the usa patriot act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272, the attorney general may certify a non-citizen as a terrorist if reasonable grounds exist to believe that the non-citizen has been engaged in terrorist activities. If the attorney general certifies the non-citizen as a terrorist, the act mandates the detention of the non-citizen. If the terrorist is deemed to be a threat to national security, or if emergency or other extraordinary circumstances are present, the federal government may detain the person for six months or longer. Accordingly, a suspected terrorist could be detained for a significant period of time without criminal charges or deportation proceedings brought against the suspect.
Many state jurisdictions have passed legislation similar to the Speedy Trial Act. Like the federal act, most state legislation permits courts to provide prosecutors with additional time upon a showing of exceptional circumstances. Most state laws also authorize courts to dismiss charges that have not been brought within a reasonable amount of time following arrest or indictment. Thus, these defendants faced with an unreasonable pretrial delay have a number of constitutional and statutory provisions that may provide them with effective relief.
Cole, David. 2002. "Enemy Aliens." Stanford Law Review 54 (May).
Feldman, Steven D. 1996. "Twenty-fifth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: Speedy Trial." Georgetown Law Journal 84 (April).
LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King, eds. 2000. Criminal Procedure. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.
Lebowitz, Lawrence M., and Ira L. Podheiser. 2002. "A Summary of the Changes in Immigration Policies and Practices After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001: The USA PATRIOT Act and Other Measures." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 63 (summer).