What Is a “Speedy” Trial?

Posted on in Criminal Defense
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution famously guarantees a criminal defendant's right to “a speedy and public trial” before a jury of his or her peers. But how “speedy” is speedy? Congress and the United States Supreme Court have established certain time limits that prosecutors must obey in bringing charges against a defendant. This does not always guarantee a speedy trial however, as many criminal cases can drag on for months or years depending on the circumstances.

The Speedy Trial Act

In 1974, Congress passed the Speedy Trial Act, which sets various milestones for criminal prosecutions. For example, the act requires the government to issue an information or indictment within 30 days of arresting or serving a summons upon the defendant. The trial must then begin within 70 days of the latter of the date of the indictment or the defendant's first court appearance. In order to give a defendant adequate time to prepare a defense, the act further stipulates the trial may not begin within the first 30 days following the initial court appearance.

There are exclusions from the 70 days limit that, in effect, stop the clock. If either party files a pretrial motion, which is common in most criminal cases, the time needed to dispose of that motion is excluded from the 70 day limit. Likewise, any delay caused by the defendant's appearance in another legal proceeding is excluded. The prosecution and the defense may also agree to a delay.

Barring these exclusions, if the government fails to comply with the Speedy Trial Act's time limits, the defendant is entitled to a dismissal of the charges. On the other hand, if the charges are dismissed on other grounds and the government decides to bring a new indictment based on the same events, the 70 day clock resets. Likewise, if a case goes to trial and ends in a mistrial, the clock also resets.

The Supreme Court's Rules

The Speedy Trial Act supplements, but does not supersede, the government's obligation to provide a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court has set forth its own guidelines for deciding whether the government has delayed a criminal case too long. In its landmark 1972 decision Barker v. Wingo, the Court identified four factors in determining whether a delay between arrest and trial violated a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights, which include:

  1. The length of the delay before trial;
  2. The reason for the delay and whether the government or the defendant was more responsible for the delay;
  3. Whether the defendant timely asserted his or her right to a speedy trial; and
  4. The prejudice actually suffered by the defendant because of the delay.

Justice May Still Be Delayed

Individual trial and appellate courts may interpret the Supreme Court's guidelines differently. For example, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia recently ordered the dismissal of an indictment because more than six years elapsed between the initial charge and the defendant's subsequent court appearance. A majority of the three-judge appeals panel said the government did not act with “reasonable diligence” in apprehending the defendant after indicting him. The dissenting judge agreed with the trial judge, who thought the government acted reasonably and the unusual delay did not violate the defendant's Sixth Amendment rights.

Of course, the government will rarely concede any delay is unconstitutional. That is why if you find yourself facing any sort of criminal charge, it is essential you have the assistance of an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.
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