What is the Right to a Speedy Trial?

Baltimore County, MD criminal defense attorney explains the right to a speedy trial

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights guarantee that every person accused of a crime has the right to speedy trial. This blog post will focus only on the constitutional aspect of the right to a speedy trial (not the Maryland Declaration of Rights or Maryland laws).

The Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that every person accused of a crime has certain rights. The right to a speedy trial is one such right. The Sixth Amendment provides that:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial . . .

U.S. Const., Amend. VI

This important right applies directly to federal prosecutions, but also applies to all state prosecutions by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Therefore, the accused in a state criminal case has the same constitutional right to a speedy trial as someone accused in a federal criminal case.

Speedy Trial Factors

The U.S. Supreme Court has not set forth a bright line rule to determine exactly how long the government has to try a defendant in a criminal case before he or she may assert a violation of his or her speedy trial right. Instead, the Supreme Court adopted a balancing test in the case of Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) that consists of four factors for courts to consider in deciding whether a trial has been unreasonably delayed. Because courts use a balancing test, no single factor by itself is dispositive of whether a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated.

Length of the Delay

The length of the delay is the first factor that a court will examine in its analysis of whether the accused has been deprived of his or her right to a speedy trial. Because each criminal case presents a different set of circumstances, there is not a bright line rule to determine if and when a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated. In other words, there is not a rule that says that the government has a specific amount of time to bring a defendant to trial and the failure to bring the defendant to trial in that amount of time violates his or her constitutional right to a speedy trial. In Barker, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that the length of the delay may or may not be permitted depending on the nature of the offense charged (“the delay that can be tolerated for an ordinary street crime is considerably less than for a serious, complex conspiracy charge.”).

Reason for the Delay

The reason for the delay is the second factor that a court will examine in its analysis. In Barker, the U.S. Supreme Court provided three examples of reasons for the delay and how each type of reason should be treated by the court. First, a deliberate effort to delay the trial in order to hinder the defense weighed heavily against the government. Second, a more neutral reason, such as negligence or overcrowded courts, is weighed less heavily but nevertheless should be considered since the ultimate responsibility for such circumstances rests with the government, rather than with the defendant. Lastly, a valid reason, such as an unavailable witness, may justify an appropriate delay.

Defendant’s Assertion of the Right

Whether the defendant has asserted his or her right to a speedy trial and when the assertion was made, if at all, is the third factor that a court will consider in its analysis. In Barker, the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “The defendant’s assertion of his speedy trial right, then, is entitled to strong evidentiary weight in determining whether the defendant is being deprived of the right. We emphasize that failure to assert the right will make it difficult for a defendant to prove that he was denied a speedy trial.” In summary, a court will look at whether a defendant asserted his or her right to a speedy trial. A court will likely view a defendant that asserted his or her right to a speedy trial more favorably in the constitutional speedy trial analysis than a defendant that did not assert his or her right.

Prejudice to the Defendant

The prejudice that a defendant has suffered as a result of the delay is the fourth factor that a court will consider in its analysis. In Barker, the U.S. Supreme Court identified three types of prejudice that the accused may suffer: (1) Oppressive pretrial incarceration, (2) anxiety and concern while waiting for trial, and (3) impairment of one’s defense. The Barker Court noted that the impairment of one’s defense is the most significant type of prejudice that the accused may suffer and should be weighed accordingly.

What Happens if a Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial is Violated?

After conducting an analysis using the above factors, a court will reach a conclusion as to whether a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated. If the court determines that the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated, it may dismiss the case with or without prejudice. On the other hand, a court will not dismiss a case if it finds that the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial has not been violated.

Baltimore County, MD Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been charged with a criminal or serious traffic offense, it is critical that you promptly take steps to ensure that your constitutional rights are protected and not violated by the government. A Baltimore County, MD criminal defense attorney can be of valuable assistance in many ways to someone who is accused of a criminal or serious traffic offense. One such way is by filing a motion with the court that demands a speedy trial and following through to ensure that the demand is satisfied. If the demand is not satisfied, then a criminal defense attorney can argue to a court that it should dismiss the charge or charges against the accused. Contact our office for a free consultation with a criminal defense attorney to discuss whether your right to a speedy trial may have been violated and what efforts may be made to get the charge or charges against you dismissed.

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