Criminal Law

Defendant's Right to a Speedy Trial

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A defendant in a criminal case has a right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution. A person's right to a speedy trial arises only after the government has formally accused that person of a crime, either by arresting or indicting the person.

The right to a speedy trial keeps defendants from sitting in jail for an indefinite period before trial. It also improves the chances that an adequate defense can be prepared. If a trial is delayed for a long time then witnesses may start to disappear, evidence may be lost or destroyed and memories may fade.

Test for Speedy Trial Violations

Courts look at four factors when deciding whether a defendant's right to a speedy trial has been violated. The factors are:

  • Length of the delay
  • Reasons for the delay
  • Prejudice or harm to defendant caused by delay
  • Whether defendant demanded a speedy trial and at what stage of criminal proceedings

Length of Delay

There isn't an absolute time limit that is considered too long of a delay. Courts use a balancing test where the length of delay is just one factor used in determining whether a speedy trial has been denied.

Generally, it is presumed that a defendant was denied a speedy trial if there is a delay of a year or more from the date of arrest. The government may overcome this presumption by giving a good reason for the delay.

Reason for Delay

The reason for a delay is looked at because a defendant may not benefit from his own misconduct. Therefore, if a defendant's own actions lengthen the pretrial phase, the defendant may not claim a denial of speedy trial.

The government may delay a trial for practical reasons. For example, the government may need time to get an absent witness to be present at trial. However, the prosecution can't delay the trial for its own advantage. Also, any delays due to the government's negligent action, such as misplacing a defendant's file, do violate a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Prejudice Caused by Delay

A significant delay may cause prejudice to a defendant. Prejudice can be shown by a loss of evidence, witnesses and memory. The death of a key witness or the inability of witnesses to recall evidence is enough to show prejudice after a long delay.

Demand for Speedy Trial

A defendant can lose his claim of being denied a speedy trial. Generally, a defendant shouldn't accept long pretrial delays and should assert his speedy trial right early in a criminal proceeding. A defendant can't silently allow a delay and later claim his right to a speedy trial was denied.

Defendant May Waive Speedy Trial Rights

A defendant may waive his speedy trial rights by voluntarily entering a guilty plea. A defendant can also waive his right to a speedy trial by filing frivolous pretrial motions.

Remedy Is No Further Prosecution

If a court decides a defendant's right to a speedy trial was denied, no further prosecution takes place. Depending on the remedy requested by a defendant, one of the following will occur:

  • Indictment will be dismissed
  • Convictions will be overturned
  • Sentence will be vacated

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long of a delay is considered too long and therefore a denial of a speedy trial?
  • Can a delay caused by the defendant be a violation of the defendant's speedy trial right?
  • What will a court do if it decides a defendant's right to a speedy trial was denied?

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