Speedy Trial

The U.S. Constitution requires that an impartial jury try criminal defendants within a reasonable time after an arrest. Most states have set a minimum time in which a defendant must be tried. However, the time limit is often not enforceable due to the circumstances of the case, such as its complexity, the availability of witnesses and other proof. In federal court, the case against a defendant must be tried within 70 days after an indictment or an appearance before the judge, whichever is later.

Do I have to ask for a speedy trial?

Yes. Most states require you to ask for a speedy trial in order to trigger the timeline. A written demand should always be made, even if it is not required, so that the prosecutor has unequivocal notice of your request.

I want a speedy trial, but my attorney still needs time to prepare. Can a trial start right away?

No. In federal court, a trial cannot begin sooner than 30 days after your first appearance before a judge. You have at least 30 days to prepare for trial and, unless you agree in writing otherwise, the case will not be tried before that time. Most states follow the federal rule to some extent.

Are speedy trial time limits applicable in extradition cases?

No. In extradition cases, the time for trial is extended while extradition matters are decided. Extradition is the handing over by a government of somebody accused of a crime in a different country or state for trial or punishment by another jurisdiction. Extradition cases have their own legal timeline that precede deadlines for a speedy trial.

My trial has been delayed time and again. What do I do to show my right to a speedy trial has been violated and get the charges against me dismissed?

You must file a motion to dismiss the charges based on violations of your constitutional right to a speedy trial. The charges will be dismissed if you can show:

  • that you, in fact, asked for a speedy trial;
  • invalid reasons for the delay;
  • a length of delay that is unreasonable; and
  • prejudice you suffered as a result of the delay.

If the delay has been many years, the charges may be dismissed without any showing on your part.

If I have asked for a speedy trial, why can the prosecutor delay it?

The prosecution has the right, just as a defendant does, to request a continuance or delay in the trial date. The prosecutor must show good cause for the delay, such as unavailable witnesses, illness or new evidence. The first request for a continuance is typically granted. Furthermore, the granting of a continuance by the judge does not violate your constitutional right to a speedy trial.

A defendant may waive her right to a speedy trial in order to gain time to prepare a defense. However, once waived, she cannot complain that the prosecution was slow in bringing the case to trial. Additionally, defendants often delay their own cases by changing attorneys, thereby frustrating a prosecutor's attempt to gain a quick conviction.

Sidebar: A defendant who demands a speedy trial must be tried before the date required in the trial timeline. If a defendant's right to a speedy trial has been violated, the court may dismiss the charges against the defendant.

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