Sixth Amendment Right to a “Speedy” Trial

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees defendants the right to a speedy trial by a jury of their peers. This right dates back to England’s King Henry II (1154 – 1159) and the Magna Carta (1215). While it seems fairly straightforward, the term “speedy” has been difficult to define.


Purpose of the “Speedy Trial” Clause

The original purpose of the “speedy trial” clause was to prevent accused persons from spending too much time in jail while awaiting trial, since incarceration is an infringement on one’s liberty. In the same way, waiting too long for a trial could allow evidence exonerating the defendant to disappear. For example, a witness could die, documents could be lost and memories could become faded.

Conversely, defendants can waive their rights to a speedy trial by filing frivolous lawsuits or by entering a guilty plea.


What is a Speedy Trial?

Calculation of the time spent awaiting trial, or the delay, does not begin until a defendant is arrested or indicted. Delay is not the only measure of a trial’s speediness, however. The Supreme Court has set forth a “balancing test” to determine violations of the “speedy trial” clause. Delay is only one of four factors that are examined together before a case is dismissed, a conviction is overturned or a sentence is vacated.

  1. The defendant’s assertion of this right: Defendants must assert their right to a speedy trial during the delay. Failing to assert this right in a timely manner is interpreted as acquiescing to the delay.
  2. The delay’s length: Generally, a delay of a year or more from the time of arrest or indictment can be interpreted as a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. However, legitimate reasons for the delay can compensate for the lengthy time-frame.
  3. The state’s reason for the delay: If the reason is unavoidable, then an exception to the one-year time-frame may be granted. For example, if a key witness is unavailable, then the prosecutor may delay a trial. However, the prosecutor cannot delay a trial in order to gain an advantage. Neither can the prosecution’s mistakes, such as losing an important file, cause a delay.
  4. The prejudice suffered by the defendant: In this instance, prejudice means that the case is stacked against the defendant for reasons other than actual evidence. For example, if a witness who could provide the defendant with an alibi dies or becomes incapacitated during the delay, then the delay prejudiced the case. In a situation like this, even if the delay is less than a year, the case could be dismissed.

For more information regarding a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, give Rand Mintzer a call at 713-862-8880.