Is time to prepare pretrial motions, when requested by the defendant, automatically excluded from calculating the Speedy Trial Act’s requirement that trials occur within seventy days of an indictment, or the defendant’s first appearance in court, whichever is later?
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 (“STA”) requires that a criminal defendant be brought to trial within seventy days of either his or her indictment or first appearance in court. Under the STA, several delays are automatically excluded from the seventy-day period, including delays related to pretrial motions. During the lead-up to Taylor Bloate’s (“Bloate”) trial, the District Court granted then-defendant Bloate’s request for extra time to prepare pretrial motions. At issue in this case is whether the time to prepare pretrial motions, when requested by a defendant, is automatically excluded from the STA’s seventy-day period. If this preparation time is included, the period between Bloate’s indictment and trial would exceed seventy days, and Bloate’s indictment would not stand. Conversely, if it is not included, the period would be less than seventy days, and Bloate’s indictment would stand. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will resolve a circuit court split and will also have significant effects on federal criminal procedure, the interests of criminal defendants, the and the interests of the general public in maintaining a fair and efficient criminal justice system.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the time granted to prepare pretrial motions is excludable under §3161(h)(1). As the Eighth Circuit explicitly acknowledged below, this question has divided the courts of appeals. The Fourth and Sixth Circuits have answered it in the negative; the Eighth Circuit and seven other circuits have answered it in the affirmative.
Under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 (“STA”), a criminal defendant is entitled to a trial within seventy days after an indictment is issued, or the defendant’s first appearance before a federal court, whichever is later. If a criminal defendant does not receive a trial within the seventy-day period, the court, upon defendant’s motion, is required to dismiss the indictment. Under the STA, several delays are “excluded” from the seventy-day period, including delays caused by the absence of the defendant, the transportation of the defendant from another district, or the review of an interlocutory appeal.
On August 2, 2006, police officers pulled over Petitioner, Taylor Bloate (“Bloate”) for erratic driving and suspicion of drug activity. The officers found two bags of crack cocaine in Bloate’s vehicle and arrested him. The officers also requested permission to search the apartment of Shanita Boclair, Bloate’s girlfriend. Boclair granted permission.During the search, the officers found more controlled substances, a bulletproof vest, and three loaded firearms. Bloate admitted to living in the apartment and to owning all of the items.
On August 24, 2006, Bloate was indicted for being a felon in possession of a firearm, and for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. On September 7, Bloate moved to extend the deadline for pretrial motions.The motion was granted and the deadline was extended to September 25. On September 25, Bloate waived his right to file pretrial motions.On October 4, 2006, a magistrate judge conducted a hearing and granted Bloate’s motion to waive pretrial motions.
On February 19, 2007, shortly before his trial date on February 26, Bloate moved to dismiss due to an STA violation, arguing that more than seventy non-excludable days had passed since he was indicted on August 24, 2006. On February 21, the court denied Bloate’s motion. At trial, the jury found Bloate guilty of both counts, and he was sentenced to 360 months in a federal penitentiary.
Bloate appealed the District Court’s denial of his motion to dismiss for an STA violation, arguing that the period between the filing of his motion to extend the deadline for filing pretrial motions on September 7 and the magistrate judge’s hearing on October 4 was not excludable under the STA. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that this twenty-eight day period for the preparation of pretrial motions was excludable under the STA. By excluding this period, the total number of days that elapsed between Bloate’s indictment and his trial equaled fifty-eight, well within the timeframe prescribed by the STA.The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari on April 20, 2009.
This case will attempt to resolve the question whether time granted to prepare pretrial motions is excludable under the STA. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals below held that pretrial motion preparation time may be excluded under the STA if the Court specifically grants time for that purpose. Petitioner, Taylor Bloate (“Bloate”), presented this question without reference to time granted at the request of a particular party. Conversely, Respondent, the United States, argues that the question is narrower in scope and presents it as limited to whether time granted at a defendant’s request is automatically excludable.
Statutory Interpretation: Automatic Exclusion under the STA
The STA automatically excludes “[a]ny period of delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant.” This section includes a list of eight subcategories of time that are automatically excluded, including “delay resulting from any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion.”
The parties disagree as to the proper construction of the STA, and specifically, of § 3161(h). First, Bloate argues that all of the subsections of the STA must be read in conjunction with one another. Specifically, Bloate argues that subsection (h)(1) cannot be read to include delay relating to pretrial motions because subsection (h)(1)(D) already deals with pretrial motions directly. In other words, according to Bloate, subsection (h)(1) must be interpreted in the context of the enumerated exceptions that are subsequently set forth in the statute.
The United States, however, argues, that the list of examples in (h)(1)(A-H) is not intended to be exhaustive or exclusive. . Rather, the United States argues that the list is meant to provide guidance to the courts regarding how to interpret “delay[s] resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant” that Section 3161(h)(1) excludes The resolution of this issue will likely boil down to whether the Court views the enumerated examples as simple guidance for trial courts or as an exhaustive and exclusive list of delays that must be automatically excluded from the seventy-day clock.
Bloate’s next argument references the canon of statutory interpretation that a statute should be interpreted so as not to render any provision superfluous or insignificant. Thus, Bloate argues, that if (h)(1) is read to automatically exclude time granted to prepare pretrial motions, the explicit starting point for excluded time under (h)(1)(D), i.e. from the “filing of the motion,” would be completely superfluous. In other words, Bloate is arguing that because there is already a provision directly addressing the time courts are supposed to start excluding time, it would be inappropriate to read a contrary meaning into the rest of the statute.
The United States confronts this argument by pointing out that Congress revised subparagraph (D) to “avoid an unduly restrictive interpretation of the exclusion as extending only to the actual time consumed in a pretrial hearing.” The United States further argues that it would make little sense to exclude the time granted to prepare a response to a motion, which the statute is currently read to do, but not to exclude the time granted to prepare the initial motion.This is based on the fact that subsection (h)(1)(D) starts excluding time upon the filing of the motion, the response to which will always come afterwards according to the United States. Thus, the United States is arguing with two premises in mind. The first, related to the amendment, is that automatic exclusion of time granted at the request of a defendant to prepare a pretrial motion fits comfortably with the purpose for delineating an express starting point in subparagraph (D). The second premise is symmetrical, insofar as it makes sense to automatically exclude time granted to prepare a pretrial motion, time allowed for a party to prepare a response to a pretrial motion is already automatically excluded.
Legislative Intent: Why Did Congress Amend the Speedy Trial Act in 1979?
Both parties argue that before the STA was amended in 1979, courts had read its exclusions narrowly to only encompass time actually consumed during a pretrial hearing. Bloate points out that the STA before 1974 failed to delineate specific boundaries regarding when time related to pretrial motions became excludable. Bloate argues that when Congress considered amending the Act in 1979, it expressed concern that there were no precise boundaries about when the time relating to pretrial motions became excludable and when it stopped being excludable. Bloate contends that Congress explicitly rejected a Department of Justice formulation that would automatically exclude “delay resulting from the preparation and service of pretrial motions and responses and from hearings thereon.” Bloate points to Congress’ specific rejection of a statutory formulation that would automatically exclude time granted to prepare pretrial motions to argue that the Eighth Circuit’s holding “flouts the decision” of Congress.
The United States, however, counters this position by arguing that the Department of Justice proposed formulation was quite broad, in that it would have encompassed all time taken by parties, even in the most routine of instances. The United States continues by arguing that because the Department of Justice proposal was much broader, and because the issue in this case is limited to time granted at the request of defendant to prepare pretrial motions, that Congress’ rejection of the proposal should not carry weight in determining the legislative intent.
Legislative Intent: How Should Subsection § 3161(h)(7) Factor into the Analysis?
Bloate builds upon his prior argument—that Congress explicitly rejected a proposal that would automatically exclude delay resulting from pretrial motions preparation— by pointing to subsection (h)(7) of the STA, which was added to the act at the same time as the 1979 amendments. Subsection (h)(7) allows trial judges to exclude time granted for a continuance when denying the continuance would result in injustice to a party. Bloate argues that this subsection provides judges the necessary discretion in determining whether to exclude reasonable preparation time, and therefore he argues it is unnecessary to automatically exclude time granted to prepare pretrial motions. Bloate argues that his reading of the Act is the most faithful to Congress’ “wish to bring calibrated precision to the pretrial motion exclusion.” The United States argues, conversely, that Congress only intended subsection (h)(7) to apply to complex cases that presented a unique need for extra time, as opposed to routine cases with common issues. The United States then argues that this present case is relatively routine and does not present complex issues or present unique circumstances, and thus, subsection (h)(7) is inapplicable.
The Supreme Court’s decision will determine whether the time to prepare pretrial motions, when requested by the defendant, is automatically excludable under the STA. Petitioner, Taylor Bloate (“Bloate”), argues that, because the STA does not explicitly list preparation time as an automatically excludable delay, trial judges may only exclude such time on a case-by-case basis Respondent United States argues that preparation time should be included in the list of automatic exclusions because it falls into the category of a “period of delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant.”
The need to strike a proper procedural balance between fairness and speed in criminal trials, while taking into account criminal defendants’ and society’s interests, is at the heart of this case.
Interests of Criminal Defendants
Should the Supreme Court rule against Bloate, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) fears the negative repercussions that lengthier trials would have for criminal defendants, especially if they are innocent. The NACDL contends that lengthy pretrial delays can result in longer periods of pretrial detention: when pretrial delay is significant, judges may detain a criminal defendant that they otherwise would not have in custody in order to ensure that the defendant does not commit another crime during the lengthy period between release on bail and the trial. The NACDL emphasizes that innocent defendants in this situation are unjustly forced to spend long periods in the brutal atmosphere of detention centers. The NACDL notes that even if an innocent defendant is released on bail, a long pretrial delay means that he or she must bear the shame of being accused of a federal crime for an unnecessarily long period of time. The NACDL also contends that the prospect of a lengthy delay until trial may increase prosecutors’ leverage to extract a guilty plea from defendants who may be innocent. Both Bloate and NACDL argue that, given the negative consequences of lengthier trials, the exclusion of time to prepare for pretrial motions should not be automatic, and courts should be allowed to use their discretion in deciding whether to exclude preparation time.
The United States argues that lengthening criminal trials when the defense asks for more time to prepare is a benefit, not a detriment, to criminal defendants. If the decision of whether to exclude preparation time lies solely within the trial judge’s discretion, the U.S. argues, judges too focused on speeding the trial along will wrongly deny the request. The U.S. contends that fairness would suffer in the name of speed if criminal defendants are hurried to trial without time to resolve pretrial motions that would have made the trial more fair, or led to an outright dismissal. The U.S. concludes that pretrial preparation time, when requested by the defendant, should be excluded because a criminal defendant will rarely have an interest in going to trial without time to prepare and resolve pretrial motions.
The Public Interest
In addition to protecting the rights of the accused, the NACDL points to the ways that speedy trials benefit the general public. The NACDL contends that speedy trials save the public both time and money by reducing the duration and costs of pretrial detention, and by encouraging plea bargaining, because the rules promote resolution.
The United States counters that the public interest is not served when trials are moved along more quickly than they ought to be. The United States argues that, given more time to prepare pretrial motions, more cases may actually end with a plea bargain instead of a trial, encouraging resolution outside of court. Additionally, the United States points out that automatically excluding pretrial preparation time removes the need for judges to make findings on the record to justify their decision to exclude the time, which reduces congestion in the courts overall.
NACDL argues that speedy criminal trials may increase public safety. The NACDL contends that certain judges may be reluctant to hold a potentially innocent, i.e. un-convicted, criminal defendant in pretrial detention for a potentially long period of time, and so would release him or her early, possibly enabling a guilty defendant to commit more crimes. More fundamentally, NACDL argues, long periods of pretrial delay reduce the deterrent effect of a swift and efficient criminal justice system.
The United States argues that automatically excluding preparation time better protects public safety than leaving the determination to the discretion of trial judges. To exclude time that is not excluded automatically, the STA requires judges to justify the decision on the record. The United States warns that if a judge inadvertently does not make the required findings, an otherwise guilty criminal defendant may later seek dismissal on this technicality. The United States argues that such a situation would result in a “windfall” to defendants when such common errors occur.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Bloate will ultimately decide the precise contours of automatically excludable time related to pretrial motions practice under Speedy Trial Act of 1974. A decision in favor of Bloate would not automatically exclude the time granted to prepare pretrial motions. Conversely, a decision in favor of the United States would automatically exclude such time.