How Speedy Must Your Criminal Trial Be?
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets forth some of your most fundamental rights when law enforcement officers charge you with allegedly committing a crime. Among these rights are “the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury … to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; … and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
The Constitution, however, does not define what constitutes a “speedy trial”. This has left both the federal government and the states with the responsibility of establishing their own laws. They determine how soon you as a defendant must be brought to trial after your arrest, indictment, or information.
The whole purpose of the speedy trial requirement is to ensure that neither you nor any other defendant will remain in jail for a long time awaiting trial, only to ultimately be found not guilty by the jury. Without the speedy trial imperative, this could happen if the judge denies you bail or you don’t have the resources to pay the bail amount the judge sets. Keep in mind that while the Eighth Amendment prohibits “excessive bail,” this term also has no precise definition. Depending on the seriousness of the crime you’re charged with, your bail could be well over $100,000 to $1 million.
Federal Speedy Trial Act
Congress passed the Speedy Trial Act in 1974 that applies to all federal criminal prosecutions except those of minors. This law requires that, in general, all federal criminal trials must begin within 70 days of the information or indictment date or the date of the defendant’s initial court appearance.
The Act nevertheless provides exceptions to this requirement, such as the following:
- The defendant’s involvement in another proceeding
- The defendant’s unavailability, or that of a co-defendant or essential witness
- The defense attorney’s need to effectively prepare for trial
- The defendant’s mental or physical incompetence to stand trial
- The defendant’s need to obtain legal counsel
- When a limited delay best serves the “ends of justice”
- The defendant’s need for continuity of counsel if his or her counsel dies, becomes seriously ill or injured or withdraws as attorney of record
Congress subsequently amended the Speedy Trial Act in 1979 to establish a minimum time, i.e., 30 days from the information or indictment date or the defendant’s initial court appearance, during which a federal criminal trial may not begin. This amendment’s purpose is to ensure that defendants are not “rushed to trial”. This allows for adequate time for their attorney to sufficiently prepare their defense.
State Speedy Trial Laws
Some states have passed their own speedy trial laws. For instance, if you face state prosecution in California, your trial must begin within 60 days after your arraignment if you are charged with a felony and within 30 days after your arraignment if you are charged with a misdemeanor.
Some states that have no speedy trial law. Therefore, individual judges must determine whether or not a trial delay runs afoul of the constitutionally-imposed speedy trial mandate. Generally, judges consider many factors when making this determination after either the prosecution or the defense asks for a continuance:
- The length of the pretrial delay
- The reason for the delay
- Whether or not the requesting party has shown good cause for the delay
- The prejudice to the defendant if such a delay occurs
- Whether or not the defendant has asserted his or her right to a speedy trial
When the Speedy Trial Clock Begins to Run
As stated, the speedy trial clock usually begins running as of the date of the information or indictment or the defendant’s arrest or first court appearance. However, if you are formally charged prior to your arrest, be aware that if you find out about the charge and attempt to hide from law enforcement officers or otherwise evade arrest, the judge will pause the speedy trial clock for whatever length of time you successfully evade arrest.
For federal criminal prosecutions, if the prosecution requests dismissal of the initial indictment, the 70-day speedy trial clock tolls during the period after dismissal and before it files a second indictment. If the defense requested the dismissal, the speedy trial clock ends and begins anew if and when the prosecution files a second indictment.
If the federal trial ends in a mistrial (one rendered invalid because of a serious procedural error or because the jury could not agree on a verdict) or the court grants a motion for a new trial, the 70-day speedy trial clock starts again on the date when the results of the original trial become final.
Waiver or Forfeiture of Your Right to a Speedy Trial
Since the right to a speedy trial is your constitutionally-guaranteed personal right, you can waive it or forfeit it. This can happen either intentionally or inadvertently by failing to assert it. In fact, you can waive or forfeit any of your constitutional rights. But, you should never do so without fully discussing giving up one of these rights with your attorney.
Think of your right to a speedy trial as a “use it or lose it” proposition. If you fail to timely assert it against the prosecution, or if you must abandon it because you and your attorney need further time in which to adequately prepare your defense, it’s gone. You cannot get it back with respect to this particular criminal charge.
Why You Need an Experienced Local Lawyer
Whenever you face criminal prosecution, hire an experienced criminal defense attorney. They will vigorously protect your rights and just as vigorously defend you against the charges.
Say a judge determines that the prosecution has dragged its feet in beginning your trial and therefore run afoul of whatever speedy trial timeline applies in your jurisdiction. They must dismiss the charges against you. However, bear in mind that he or she can dismiss them with or without prejudice. Dismissing without prejudice means that the prosecution can refile the charges, thereby starting the speedy trial clock anew. Dismissing with prejudice means that you cannot be prosecuted again for the same charges.