Speedy Trial Clause

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

Amendment VI

From the time of the Assize of Clarendon (1166) and the Magna Carta (1215), the common law created protections in response to English monarchs who imprisoned enemies of the Crown without permitting them access to courts. By 1642, Sir Edward Coke was able to conclude that English judges "have not suffered the prisoner to be long detained, but...have given the prisoner full and speedy justice...." The evil to be avoided was lengthy pretrial detention. The English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, for example, required timely hearings while the accused was on bail.

The Framers of the Constitution understood that a speedy trial was part of the essence of the rights of Englishmen. When the First Congress drafted the Bill of Rights, it approved without discussion the right to a speedy trial. At that time, the rights to habeas corpus (Article I, Section 9, Clause 2), to nonexcessive bail (Eighth Amendment), and to a speedy trial were seen as interrelated. Under common-law practice, judges would grant a habeas corpus petition and dismiss the indictment if a defendant was detained too long prior to trial. Once the defendant was free, the harm of pretrial detention ceased, and the speedy-trial requirement was moot. The state could, if it wished, reindict later so long as the statute of limitations was not a bar. Early American cases sometimes decided the issue of pretrial detention simply through the application of state habeas corpus without even referring to the right to a speedy trial. See, e.g., Logan v. State (1814).

As with most of the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has incorporated the Speedy Trial Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment and applied it to the states. Klopfer v. North Carolina (1967). The modern Court, moreover, views the right to a speedy trial as preventing not only the harm of pretrial detention, but also harm to the defense caused by delay—for example, fading memories or the deaths of witnesses. Thus, release on bail no longer stops the speedy-trial "clock," and a violation can occur simply because of harm to the defense. On the other hand, the failure of the defense to move to dismiss the case counts against a defendant who later asserts a right to a speedy trial, because the Court views this defendant as acquiescing in the delay.

One's right to a speedy trial in most instances begins from the time of arrest or indictment, not from the moment an investigation begins. It is left to statutes of limitations to cure the abuse of too long an investigation. At present, the Federal Speedy Trial Act (1974) defines the time limits for criminal actions to begin. Generally speaking, an indictment or information must be filed within thirty days of arrest, and a trial should occur within seventy days of the filing.

Most constitutional violations are cured by ordering a trial that is free of the error. But the harm that delay would normally cause the defense cannot be remedied by a new trial. The Court's response to this conundrum is to require that the indictment be dismissed, or the conviction vacated, without possibility of retrial. Strunk v. United States (1973).

To make a conviction impossible to obtain when the trial is held too late is logical but extreme. As a result, courts are loath to find violations of the speedy-trial right. Furthermore, the speedy-trial test the Supreme Court has adopted gives lower courts great discretion in deciding speedy-trial claims. Barker v. Wingo (1972) held that courts should consider (1) whether and how the defendant asserts his right to a speedy trial; (2) the length of the delay; (3) the reason the State offers to excuse the delay; and (4) the prejudice that the defendant suffered (pretrial deprivation of liberty as well as harm to the defense caused by the delay). The facts of Barker itself demonstrate how much discretion courts have to decide whether a trial is speedy. Willie Barker stood convicted of the brutal murder of an elderly couple. Even though the trial occurred more than five years after indictment, the Court unanimously held that it did not violate the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

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George Thomas
Board of Governors Professor of Law
Judge Alexander P. Waugh, Sr. Distinguished Scholar
Rutgers School of Law, Newark