When the circumstances surrounding a crime are complex, the police may need time to investigate the case before arresting a suspect. They may need to gather and analyze evidence, interview victims and witnesses, and consult with prosecutors before determining who may have been responsible for the crime. The timing for an arrest is usually flexible, as long as the statute of limitations for the crime has not expired. (Each crime has its own statute of limitations in each state, while murder and certain other serious crimes have no statute of limitations.) In some situations, however, the police may delay so long in arresting a suspect that they cannot make an effective defense. A court may dismiss a charge or overturn a conviction if an arrest is greatly delayed, and the police and prosecution do not have a reasonable justification for the delay.
Reasons for Dismissal Based on an Untimely Arrest
There is no specific provision in the Constitution that contains a right to a timely arrest, similar to the right to a speedy trial. However, a defendant may make a due process argument that they did not have a right to a fair trial if the arrest was greatly delayed. They will need to provide a thorough explanation of how the delay undermined their defense. A general argument that a long delay naturally caused the decay or disappearance of evidence will not be enough to get the charge dismissed. For example, defendants have not prevailed when they alleged that they could no longer find certain witnesses to testify for them, without explaining the relevance of their testimony to the case.
Courts in some states will dismiss a charge or throw out a conviction on the basis of an untimely arrest only if law enforcement intentionally caused a delay. The delay also must have furthered the prosecution’s case. Perhaps it prevented the defendant from presenting witness testimony that would have supported an alibi or suggested that someone else committed the crime. Similar to the situation above, the defendant must show that the delay not only was intentional but also was material to the outcome of the case. A court will not rule for the defendant if the delay did not affect the relative strengths and weaknesses of each side’s arguments.
In still other states, the defendant does not have the burden of proving that the police or prosecution intentionally caused the delay to help their case or undermine the defendant’s case. The defendant simply needs to show that their case was in fact undermined by the delay, and then the prosecution will need to show that there was a justification for the delay. The judge will consider the degree to which the delay hampered the defense and the strength of the prosecution’s justification. If the effect of the delay was significant, and the prosecution does not have a strong justification for it, the judge may find that the delay violated due process. This burden shifting system and balancing test tends to be more favorable to defendants than the tests above.