CRS Annotated Constitution

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Speedy Trial

Source and Rationale.—The right to a speedy trial may be derived from a provision of Magna Carta and it was a right so interpreted by Coke.12 Much the same language was incorporated[p.1401]into the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 13 and from there into the Sixth Amendment. Unlike other provisions of the Amendment, this guarantee can be attributable to reasons which have to do with the rights of and infliction of harms to both defendants and society. The provision is “an important safeguard to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial, to minimize anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation and to limit the possibility that long delay will impair the ability of an accused to defend himself.”14 The passage of time alone may lead to the loss of witnesses through death or other reasons and the blurring of memories of available witnesses. But on the other hand, “there is a societal interest in providing a speedy trial which exists separate from and at times in opposition to the interests of the accused.” Persons in jail must be supported at considerable public expense and often families must be assisted as well. Persons free in the community may commit other crimes, may be tempted over a lengthening period of time to “jump” bail, and may be able to use the backlog of cases to engage in plea bargaining for charges or sentences which do not give society justice. And delay often retards the deterrent and rehabilitative effects of the criminal law.15

Application and Scope.—Because the guarantee of a speedy trial “is one of the most basic rights preserved by our Constitution,” it is one of those “fundamental” liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights which the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes applicable to the States.16 The protection afforded by this guarantee “is activated only when a criminal prosecution has begun and extends only to those persons who have been ‘accused’ in the course of that prosecution.” Invocation of the right need not await indictment, information, or other formal charge but begins with the actual restraints imposed by arrest if those restraints precede the formal preferring of charges.17 Possible prejudice that[p.1402]may result from delays between the time government discovers sufficient evidence to proceed against a suspect and the time of instituting those proceedings is guarded against by statutes of limitation, which represent a legislative judgment with regard to permissible periods of delay.18 In two cases, the Court held that the speedy trial guarantee had been violated by States which preferred criminal charges against persons who were already incarcerated in prisons of other jurisdictions following convictions on other charges when those States ignored the defendants’ requests to be given prompt trials and made no effort through requests to prison authorities to obtain custody of the prisoners for purposes of trial.19 A state practice permitting the prosecutor to take nolle prosequi with leave, which discharged the accused from custody but left him subject at any time thereafter to prosecution at the discretion of the prosecutor, the statute of limitations being tolled, was condemned as violative of the guarantee.20

When the Right is Denied.—“The right of a speedy trial is necessarily relative. It is consistent with delays and depends upon circumstances. It secures rights to a defendant. It does not preclude the rights of public justice.”21 No length of time is per se too long to pass scrutiny under this guarantee,22 but on the other hand nei[p.1403]ther does the defendant have to show actual prejudice by delay.23 The Court rather has adopted an ad hoc balancing approach. “We can do little more than identify some of the factors which courts should assess in determining whether a particular defendant has been deprived of his right. Though some might express them in different ways, we identify four such factors: Length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.”24 The fact of delay triggers an inquiry and is dependent on the circumstances of the case. Reasons for delay will vary. A deliberate delay for advantage will weigh heavily, whereas the absence of a witness would justify an appropriate delay, and such factors as crowded dockets and negligence will fall between these other factors.25 It is the duty of the prosecution to bring a defendant to trial, and the failure of the defendant to demand the right is not to be construed as a waiver of the right;26 yet, the defendant’s acquiescence in delay when it works to his advantage should be considered against his later assertion that he was denied the guarantee, and the defendant’s responsibility for the delay would be conclusive. Finally, a court should look to the possible prejudices and disadvantages suffered by a defendant during a delay.27

A determination that a defendant has been denied his right to a speedy trial results in a decision to dismiss the indictment or to reverse a conviction in order that the indictment be dismissed.28


Public Trial

“This nation’s accepted practice of guaranteeing a public trial to an accused has its roots in our English common law heritage. The exact date of its origin is obscure, but it likely evolved long before the settlement of our land as an accompaniment of the ancient institution of jury trial. In this country the guarantee to an accused of the right to a public trial first appeared in a state constitution in 1776. Following the ratification in 1791 of the Federal Constitution’s Sixth Amendment . . . most of the original states and those subsequently admitted to the Union adopted similar constitutional provisions. Today almost without exception every state by constitution, statute, or judicial decision, requires that all criminal trials be open to the public.

“The traditional Anglo–American distrust for secret trials has been variously ascribed to the notorious use of this practice by the Spanish Inquisition, to the excesses of the English Court of Star Chamber, and to the French monarchy’s abuse of the letter de cachet. All of these institutions obviously symbolized a menace to liberty. . . . Whatever other benefits the guarantee to an accused that his trial be conducted in public may confer upon our society, the guarantee has always been recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments of persecution.”29 The purposes of the requirement of open trials are multiple: it helps to assure the criminal defendant a fair and accurate adjudication of guilt or innocence, it provides a public demonstration of fairness, it discourages perjury, the misconduct of participants, and decisions based on secret bias or partiality. The Court has also expatiated upon the therapeutic value to the community of open trials to enable the public to see justice done and the fulfillment of the urge for retribution that people feel upon the commission of some kinds of crimes.30 Because of the near universality of the guarantee in this country, the Supreme Court has had little occasion to deal with the right. It is a right so fundamental that it is protected against state deprivation by the due process clause,31 but it is not[p.1405]so absolute that reasonable regulation designed to forestall prejudice from publicity and disorderly trials is foreclosed.32 The banning of television cameras from the courtroom and the precluding of live telecasting of a trial is not a denial of the right,33 although the Court does not inhibit televised trials under the proper circumstances.34

The Court has borrowed from First Amendment cases in protecting the right to a public trial. Closure of trials or pretrial proceedings over the objection of the accused may be justified only if the state can show “an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”35 In Waller v. Georgia,36 the Court held that an accused’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated by closure of all 7 days of a suppression hearing in order to protect persons whose phone conversations had been taped, when less than 2<SUP>1/<INF>2 hours of the hearing had been devoted to playing the tapes. The need for openness at suppression hearings “may be particularly strong,” the Court indicated, due to the fact that the conduct of police and prosecutor is often at issue.37 However, an accused’s Sixth Amendment–based request for closure must meet the same stringent test applied to governmental requests to close proceedings: there must be “specific findings . . . demonstrating that first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant’s fair trial rights.”38

The Sixth Amendment guarantee is apparently a personal right of the defendant, which he may in some circumstances waive in conjunction with the prosecution and the court.39 The First Amendment, however, has been held to protect public and press ac[p.1406]cess to trials in all but the most extraordinary circumstances,40 hence a defendant’s request for closure of his trial must be balanced against the public and press right of access. Before such a request for closure will be honored, there must be “specific findings . . . demonstrating that first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant’s fair trial rights.”41


12 “We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.” Ch. 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta, a portion of ch. 29 of the 1225 reissue. Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 223–24 (1967) .
13 7 F. Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions, H. Doc. No. 357, 59th Congress, 2d Sess. 8, 3813 (1909).
14 United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116, 120 (1966) . See also Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 221–22 (1967) ; Smith v. Hooey, 393 U.S. 374, 377–379 (1969) ; Dickey v. Florida, 389 U.S. 30, 37–38 (1970) .
15 Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 519 (1972) ; Dickey v. Florida, 398 U.S. 30, 42 (1970) (Justice Brennan concurring). Congress by the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93–619, 88 Stat. 2076 , 18 U.S.C. §§ 3161 –74, has codified the law with respect to the right, intending “to give effect to the sixth amendment right to a speedy trial.” S. Rep. No. 1021, 93d Congress, 2d Sess. 1 (1974).
16 Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 226 (1967) .
17 United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 313, 320, 322 (1971) . Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall disagreed, arguing that the “right to a speedy trial is the right to be brought to trial speedily which would seem to be as relevant to pretrial indictment delays as it is to post–indictment delays,” but concurring because they did not think the guarantee violated under the facts of the case. Id. at 328. In United States v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1 (1982) , the Court held the clause was not implicated by the action of the United States when, in May of 1970, it proceeded with a charge of murder against defendant under military law but dismissed the charge in October of that year, and he was discharged in December. In June of 1972, the investigation was reopened and an investigation was begun, but a grand jury was not convened until August of 1974, and MacDonald was not indicted until January of 1975. The period between dismissal of the first charge and the later indictment had none of the characteristics which called for application of the speedy trial clause. The period between arrest and indictment must be considered in evaluating a speedy trial claim. Marion and MacDonald were applied in United States v. Loud Hawk, 474 U.S. 302 (1986) , holding the speedy trial guarantee inapplicable to the period during which the government appealed dismissal of an indictment, since during that time the suspect had not been subject to bail or otherwise restrained.
18 United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 322–23 (1971) . Cf. United States v. Toussie, 397 U.S. 112, 114–15 (1970) . In some circumstances, pre–accusation delay could constitute a due process violation but not a speedy trial problem. If prejudice results to a defendant because of the government’s delay, a court should balance the degree of prejudice against the reasons for delay given by the prosecution. Marion, supra, at 324; United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783 (1977) ; United States v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1, 8 (1982) .
19 Smith v. Hooey, 393 U.S. 374 (1969) ; Dickey v. Florida, 398 U.S. 30 (1970) .
20 Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213 (1967) . In Pollard v. United States, 352 U.S. 354 (1957) , the majority assumed and the dissent asserted that sentence is part of the trial and that too lengthy or unjustified a delay in imposing sentence could run afoul of this guarantee.
21 Beavers v. Haubert, 198 U.S. 77, 87 (1905) (holding that the guarantee could not be invoked by a defendant first indicted in one district to prevent removal to another district where he had also been indicted).
22 Cf. Pollard v. United States, 352 U.S. 354 (1957) ; United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116 (1966) . See United States v. Provoo, 350 U.S. 857 (1955) , aff’g 17 F.R.D. 183 (D. Md. 1955).
23 United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 320 (1971) ; Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 536 (1972) (Justice White concurring).
24 Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530 (1972) . For the federal courts, Congress under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 imposed strict time deadlines, replacing the Barker factors.
25 Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 531 (1972) . Delays caused by the prosecution’s interlocutory appeal will be judged by the Barker factors, of which the second—the reason for the appeal—is the most important. United States v. Loud Hawk, 474 U.S. 302 (1986) (no denial of speedy trial, since prosecution’s position on appeal was strong, and there was no showing of bad faith or dilatory purpose). If the interlocutory appeal is taken by the defendant, he must “bear the heavy burden of showing an unreasonable delay caused by the prosecution [or] wholly unjustifiable delay by the appellate court” in order to win dismissal on speedy trial grounds. Id. at 316.
26 Id. at 528. See generally id. at 523–29. Waiver is “an intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or privilege,” Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464 (1938) , and it is not to be presumed but must appear from the record to have been intelligently and understandingly made. Carnley v. Cochran, 369 U.S. 506, 516 (1962) .
27 Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 532 (1972) .
28 Strunk v. United States, 412 U.S. 434 (1973) . A trial court denial of a motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds is not an appealable order under the “collateral order” exception to the finality rule. One must raise the issue on appeal from a conviction. United States v. MacDonald, 435 U.S. 850 (1977) .
29 In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257, 266–70 (1948) (citations omitted). Other panegyrics to the value of openness, accompanied with much historical detail, are Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 406, 411–33 (1979) (Justice Blackmun concurring in part and dissenting in part); Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 564–73 (1980) (plurality opinion of Chief Justice Burger); id. at 589–97 (Justice Brennan concurring); Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 603–07 (1982) .
30 Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532, 538–39 (1965) ; Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 569–73 (1980) (plurality opinion of Chief Justice Burger); id. at 593–97 (Justice Brennan concurring).
31 In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257 (1948) ; Levine v. United States, 362 U.S. 610 (1960) . Both cases were contempt proceedings which were not then “criminal prosecutions” to which the Sixth Amendment applied (for the modern rule see Bloom v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 194 (1968) ), so that the cases were wholly due process holdings. Cf. Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555, 591 n.16 (1980) (Justice Brennan concurring).
32 Cf. Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966) ; Nebraska Press Ass’n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539 (1976) .
33 Estes v. Texas, 381 U.S. 532 (1965) . Cf. Nixon v. Warner Communications, 435 U.S. 589, 610 (1978) .
34 Chandler v. Florida, 449 U.S. 560 (1981) .
35 Press–Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 464 U.S. 501, 510 (1984) (Press–Enterprise I).
36 467 U.S. 39 (1984) .
37 Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 47 (1984) (indicating that the Press–Enterprise I standard governs such 6th Amendment cases).
38 Press–Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 14 (1986) (Press–Enterprise II).
39 Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368 (1979) .
40 Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980) ; Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596 (1982) . See also Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 397 (1979) (Justice Powell concurring).
41 Press–Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1 (1986) . See First Amendment discussion supra pp.1105–08.
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