Your Right to a Speedy Trial

Defendants have a right to a speedy trial...but how fast is fast?

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of individual states guarantee a speedy trial for people facing formal criminal charges. Federal and state constitutions don't say how long defendants can be kept waiting for trial. Instead, when deciding whether to dismiss charges for speedy trial violations, judges weigh the reason for the delay against any harm caused to the defendant, among other factors.

In addition to constitutional speedy trial rights, most jurisdictions have speedy trial statutes (laws) that set explicit time frames for trials. For example, in federal court, the Speedy Trial Act requires the government to bring defendants to trial within 70 days of the filing of charges or the defendant's appearance before a judicial officer in court, whichever is later. (18 U.S.C. § 3161.) Most states have similar deadlines. Some states strictly enforce deadlines, while others weigh factors (similar to the constitutional balancing test) to determine whether a delay is too long.

Three different speedy trial arguments are potentially available to a defendant: one based on the U.S. Constitution, one based on their state's constitution, and one based on speedy trial statutes. Defendants file a speedy trial motion and present evidence on factors that support their claim, like the length of delay and prejudice to the defense.

This article breaks down constitutional and statutory speedy trial rights, when the speedy trial clock starts ticking, and the consequences for violations.

Reasons for the Right to a Speedy Trial

The federal constitution guarantees speedy trials, as do state constitutions and statutes. The purpose of these layers of constitutional and statutory protections is to:

  • prevent lengthy pretrial incarceration
  • minimize anxiety over accusations
  • protect the defendant's ability to defend against charges (preserve evidence), and
  • relieve court congestion.

The Constitutional Right to a Speedy Trial

Criminal defendants "enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial" under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and their individual state constitutions. The right to a speedy trial doesn't guarantee an instant trial: Defendants are entitled to a trial as soon as reasonably possible.

Courts consider Sixth Amendment speedy trial challenges on a case-by-case basis, balancing the following factors:

  • length of the delay
  • the reason for the delay (deliberate, negligent, tactical)
  • whether the defendant asserted the speedy trial right, and
  • whether the delay prejudiced (compromised) the defense.

State courts might use a different balancing test to analyze speedy trial challenges under state constitutions. For example, under the California Constitution, judges weigh:

  • actual prejudice to the defendant from the delay, and
  • the prosecution's justification for the delay.

The Statutory Right to a Speedy Trial

Most states and the federal government have speedy trial statutes that supplement constitutional protections by setting exact time limits for moving cases from formal charges to trial. Time limits typically hinge on the seriousness of the case (crime classification) and the defendant's custody status. For example, in California, the government must get defendants charged with a felony to trial within 60 days of arraignment on an indictment or information. The government must get defendants charged with misdemeanors to trial within 30 days of arraignment if they are in custody or 45 days if they are released on recognizance (a promise to appear) or bail.

Statutory rights are distinct from constitutional rights. Defendants can argue that the government violated their constitutional right to a speedy trial even when they are brought to trial within statutory time limits and vice versa.

Defendants who want to assert their right to a speedy trial must:

  • demand (ask for) a speedy trial
  • object to continuances beyond statutory time limits for trial, and
  • file a speedy trial motion when the prosecution or court delays the trial.

Cases often move much slower than speedy trial rules require because defendants waive their right to a speedy trial or courts postpone trials when there is "good cause" for a continuance. Examples of "good cause" include:

  • insufficient time for the prosecution or defense to investigate and prepare for trial
  • discovery of new evidence
  • unavailability of an important witness, and
  • domestic emergencies, like a pandemic.

Starting the Speedy Trial Clock

The defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial is activated when a criminal prosecution formally begins—typically on the date of arrest or formal charges, whichever happens first.

Delays prior to arrest or formal charging (called pre-accusation delays) and delays between conviction and sentencing (called post-conviction delays) don't violate the Sixth Amendment but might infringe on a defendant's 14th Amendment right to due process.

Victims and the Right to Speedy Trials

Victims don't have a constitutional right to see that the accused receives a speedy trial, nor do they have a right to a quick resolution of their accusations. But several state laws provide victims of crime with the right to have the criminal case proceed in a reasonably timely manner. These laws require courts to consider the impact of delays on the victim each time the court decides whether to reschedule a trial date, even if the defendant and prosecutor agree to the delay. And some states have laws that require courts to give scheduling priority to cases involving particularly vulnerable victims, like elderly people or young children.

Consequences for a Speedy Trial Violation

Courts generally must dismiss charges with prejudice (meaning the prosecution can't refile) for constitutional speedy trial violations. Defendants can raise constitutional speedy trial claims pretrial or on appeal.

Remedies for statutory speedy trial violations range from the court releasing defendants from pretrial detention to dismissing charges with or without prejudice.

Talk to a Lawyer

Talk to a lawyer if you think the government has violated your right to a speedy trial. A knowledgeable lawyer can evaluate your claim and explain how the law in your jurisdiction applies to the facts of your case. If you are awaiting trial, talk to a lawyer about the pros and cons of asserting your right to a speedy trial or whether it makes sense to "waive time." If you have already been convicted, consult an attorney with experience handling appeals in criminal cases.

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