Your Right to a Speedy Trial

Introduction

Every criminal defendant is cognizant of at least some of the rights he or she is afforded in a criminal case. The right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, and (important for this discussion) the right to a speedy trial are often asserted by criminal defendants at some point during the pendency of their cases – even by defendants without much legal training or exposure to the criminal justice system. It is indeed true that criminal defendants have a “right” to a speedy trial – in fact, defendants often have both a constitutional right and a statutory right to a speedy trial. Read further to learn how these two rights operate and can be asserted in a criminal proceeding.

Your Constitutional Right to a Speedy Trial

The U.S. Constitution along with the constitutions of each state guarantee a criminal defendant the right to have a “speedy” trial. What many of these constitutions (including the U.S. Constitution) do not specify, however, is what constitutes a “speedy” trial. The term “speedy” is left ambiguous, meaning that the constitutional issue of “speedy trial” is determined on a case-by-case basis. When a court is confronted with a claim that a defendant’s constitutional speedy trial right has been violated, the court will look at the circumstances to determine whether this is true. Some of the factors a court will consider important include:

  • How long the case has been pending;

  • The reason for the delay in bringing the defendant to trial;

  • Whether the defendant has caused any of the delays or whether the defendant has requested continuances of his or her case; and/or

  • The workload of the prosecutor’s office and the nature of the court’s calendar (a court whose calendar is full of hearings and trials may be given a little leeway if it takes a bit longer to bring a defendant to trial).

If the court determines that there is no good cause for the delay in bringing the defendant to trial, then a violation of a defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial will be found. The court may decide to dismiss the case as a sanction against the prosecution for failing to timely bring the defendant to trial.

Your Statutory Right to a Speedy Trial

right to a speedy trial

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, there is also a statutory right to a speedy trial. Unlike constitutional rights to speedy trials, these statutory rights often do specify a specific time period in which the defendant is to be tried. In some states, the “clock” begins running when the case is initiated; in other states, the clock does not begin to run until the defendant has entered a plea of not guilty to the charges. The clock is stopped each time the defendant requests a continuance and has this request granted, or for periods of delay caused by the defendant. For example, a defendant who requests to postpone his trial, or a defendant who fails to appear for his trial, will have his or her speedy trial clock “paused” until the next trial setting. Some states hold that a delay caused by the defendant’s attorney is attributable to the defendant. In other words, if the defendant’s attorney requests a continuance and there is no objection from the defendant him- or herself, the continuance will be granted and the speedy trial clock stopped for the applicable period.

Like with violations of the constitutional right to a speedy trial, violations of the statutory right to a speedy trial are often addressed by an order directing that the criminal case against the defendant be dismissed and the prosecution be prohibited from refiling the charges.