A defendant in a criminal case has a right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the Constitution does not define a speedy trial, the federal Speedy Trial Act and state laws provide some guidance on when the right may be violated. In some states, the prosecution has a certain number of days to bring a defendant to trial after they have been arraigned on an indictment. The prosecution may be able to work around the requirement if they can show good cause for a delay, or if the defendant agrees to waive the right. A violation of the speedy trial rule means that any conviction and sentence must be wiped out, and the charges must be dismissed if the case has not reached trial.
One of the main reasons for the right to a speedy trial is to prevent a defendant from being held in custody for a long time, only to eventually be found innocent. If the defendant is denied bail or cannot pay the bail amount, they will remain in jail until their trial date. An innocent citizen should not be required to spend many months incarcerated. Also, the right to a speedy trial reduces the stress on defendants and allows the defense to gather and present evidence while it is still fresh. A witness may struggle to recall the events leading to the charges if several months or more pass before the trial.
Determining a Violation of the Right
If no law sets a specific benchmark, a court must consider several factors in deciding whether the defendant was denied a speedy trial. The judge will take into account any reason for the delay and its impact on the defendant’s ability to present their case. If the delay did not undermine the defense, a judge may be inclined to give the prosecution some breathing room. The defendant will be more likely to get a case dismissed on this basis if they promptly asserted the right.
The clock usually starts running on the right to a speedy trial when the defendant is arrested. Or it may start running when the defendant is formally charged, if this happens before the arrest. However, the clock will not start running if law enforcement is investigating someone as a suspect but has not arrested or formally charged them. Since the clock can start running before the arrest, a defendant might think that avoiding an arrest would be a good strategy if they have already been charged. However, a judge will pause the clock during any period in which the defendant is evading law enforcement.
Technically, the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not require a defendant to be sentenced within a certain time after a conviction. Federal and state laws often provide certain time limits for sentencing, though, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a defendant is entitled to be sentenced without an unnecessary delay. There also may be due process arguments if a delay in sentencing is extreme. Death penalty cases, which involve a separate sentencing phase, may present distinctive timing issues.