The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 established time limits on the completion of various stages of federal prosecution. For example, the indictment or information must be filed within 30 days from the service of the summons or the date of arrest. The trial must begin no more than 70 days from the date that the information or indictment was filed, or from the date that the defendant appeared in court to address the pending charge (whichever is later).
The act was amended in 1979 to add protections that prevent a defendant from being rushed to trial without a reasonable amount of time to prepare. These amendments (the Speedy Trial Act Amendments of 1979) stated that a trial may begin no sooner than 30 days after the date that the defendant first appeared in court (unless he or she agrees in writing to an earlier trial date). However, the Supreme Court ruled that this 30-day window does not restart if a similar superseding indictment is filed.
If an indictment is dismissed at the request of the defendant, the Act allows the 30-window to resent upon the reinstatement of the charge. If the indictment is dismissed at the request of the government, the 70-day countdown is paused during the period when no indictment is outstanding but begins again once the second indictment is filed. If the trial ends in a mistrial, or the court orders a new trial, the new trial must begin within 70 days.
There are exclusions in these time windows. For example, pre-trial delays caused by motions are excluded from these countdowns. In addition, a reasonable period of time in which a motion is “under advisement” by the court is also excluded from this countdown (up to 30 days). Other situations in which this countdown clock is “paused” is when the defendant or essential witness is unavailable, when delays are attributed to a co-defendant, and when delays involve things attributed to the defendant’s involvement in other proceedings.
The confines of this act are set in place so that a defendant may not expressly waive these rights. However, if the judge serving in the trial finds that the “end of justice” served by a continuance outweigh the interest of the public and the defendant in a “speedy trial”, the delay caused by the continuance may be excluded from the Act’s time windows and limitations. If a judge comes to this conclusion, he or she must state his or her reasoning for granting a continuance in writing or orally. Furthermore, the government is encouraged to refrain from relying on a defendant's unilateral waiver of his or her rights under the act, but rather look for the “ends of justice” continuance from the judge and his or her reasoning for doing so.
The Speedy Trial Act also provides a penalty for dismissal for a violation of its time limits. This dismissal may be with or without prejudice to prosecution. When determining a dismissal should be with prejudice, the court must take several factors into consideration:
The seriousness of the offense
The circumstances that lead to the dismissal
The impact that re-prosecution would have on the administration of the Act and the administration of justice
The Supreme Court found that a trial court must consider each statutory factor when weighing whether or not to dismiss charges with prejudice.
Defendants may not unilaterally waive their rights under the Speedy Trial Act, however, they are permitted to forfeit their right to obtain a dismissal of the case for an alleged violation of the Act by failing to move for dismissal before the trial began.
It is important to note that the Act does not apply to juvenile delinquency proceedings. These types of proceedings have their own provisions in regards to speedy trials. In addition, the government must comply with the Interstate Agreement on Detainers (IAD), which sets its own time limits for those incarcerated in other jurisdictions. The government must comply by both the time limits set by the Speedy Trial Act and the IAD.
There is additional constitutional and statutory groundwork in addition to the requirements of the Speedy Trial Act. Federal statutes of limitations provide a window of time in which charges may be filed. In addition, Rule 48 allows trial courts the power to dismiss cases that are not brought to trial in a swift manner, citing unnecessary delay in the present the charge to a grand jury, in filing an information or bringing a defendant to trial.
Even if charges are brought against a defendant within the statute of limitations, he or she may still argue that a delay that occurred pre-accusation violated his or her Fifth Amendments rights in regards to due process. In order for charges to be dismissed by reason of a pre-indictment delay, the defendant must establish that the government engaged in an intentional delay to gain a tactical advantage in the case and that, as a result, he or she was a victim of actual prejudice.
A defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy trial are triggered by a formal indictment, information, or the actual restraints imposed by an arrest and holding to answer to a criminal charge. The Supreme Court established a four-factor test to determine if a delay between the initiation of the criminal proceeding and the beginning of a trial violates a defendant’s right to a speedy trial. The test requires the court to consider the following:
The length of the delay
The cause of the delay
The defendant’s assertion of his or her Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial
The presence (or lack thereof) of prejudice that resulted from the delay
Notably, the courts of appeals routinely reject Sixth Amendment speedy trial challenges in the absence of showing prejudice. The Supreme Court found, in a particular case, that the 90-month delay that occurred did not weigh against the government and the possibility of prejudice that caused the delay was not sufficient to establish a Sixth Amendment Speedy Trial violation. However, on the other hand, the Supreme court found that an “extraordinary” eight and a half year delay between the defendant’s indictment and arrest, resulted from the governments “egregious persistence in failing to prosecute him” violated his right to a speedy trial.
In situations where there are successive state and federal prosecutions, the common understanding is that an individual's federal constitutional right to a speedy trial does not take come into play until a federal accusation is made against the defendant.
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