If a pretrial motion does not threaten to postpone or actually postpone a trial, is the time necessary for the trial court to resolve the motion excluded from the 70-day time limit for beginning trial under the Speedy Trial Act?
The United States indicted Respondent Jason Tinklenberg for illegal possession of a handgun and materials used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, or “crystal meth.” On the last business day before his trial, Tinklenberg filed a motion to dismiss the indictment for violation of the Speedy Trial Act. The Speedy Trial Act requires certain federal criminal trials to begin within 70 days of the defendant’s first appearance before the court, unless certain “delays,” including the filing of pretrial motions, occur. The government argues that two of its pretrial motions qualify as excludable delays. Tinklenberg argues that because these pretrial motions did not result in a postponement of the trial date, the Speedy Trial Act does not exclude them from the 70-day count. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Tinklenberg, finding that 73 non-excludable days occurred before Tinklenberg’s scheduled trial date, and remanded the case to the lower court for dismissal. The Supreme Court's decision will settle which pretrial motions are excludable from the Speedy Trial Act’s 70-day count, and could affect the trial strategy of prosecutors and criminal defendants.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the time between the filing of a pretrial motion and its disposition is automatically excluded from the deadline for commencing trial under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, 18 U.S.C. 3161(h)(I)(D) (Supp. II 2008), or is instead excluded only if the motion actually causes a postponement, or the expectation of a postponement, of the trial.
Police officers arrested Respondent Jason Louis Tinklenberg after they found in his possession a .22 caliber pistol and materials commonly used to make methamphetamine, otherwise known as “crystal meth.” See Brief for Petitioner, United States of America at 5. On October 20, 2005, the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan charged Tinklenberg with possession of a firearm and materials used to manufacture methamphetamine. See U.S. v. Tinklenberg, 579 F.3d 589, 591 (6th Cir. 2009). On October 31, 2005, Tinklenberg made his initial appearance before a magistrate judge. See Id. This triggered the application of the Speedy Trial Act (“STA”), under which a defendant’s trial must start within 70 days from the filing date of his indictment or from the date that the defendant initially appears before a judge whose court is processing his charge, whichever date comes later. See Id. at 593–94.
On March 23, 2006, the magistrate judge found Tinklenberg competent to stand trial after the United States requested a mental competency examination. See U.S. v. Tinklenberg, 579 F.3d at 591–92. Meanwhile, Tinklenberg had filed a motion for new counsel, and Tinklenberg’s counsel moved to withdraw as his attorney. See Id. at 592. As a result, the district court appointed new counsel for Tinklenberg set a trial date of August 14, 2006. See Id.
Before the assigned trial date, the United States and Tinklenberg filed a total of three pretrial motions. See U.S. v. Tinklenberg, 579 F.3d at 592. On August 1, 2006, the United States moved to conduct a video deposition of a witness, which was granted on August 3, 2006. See Id. Then, on August 8, 2006, the United States filed a motion to bring two guns into the courtroom as evidence during the trial. See Id. On August 11, Tinklenberg moved to dismiss his indictment on the grounds that the court violated the STA. See Id. However, on the morning of the trial, the district court denied Tinklenberg’s motion because, according to its calculation, only 69 days had lapsed since his initial appearance before a judge. See Id. The trial proceeded, and the jury found Tinklenberg guilty of all charges. See Id. The district court sentenced him to 33 months of imprisonment to be followed by three years of supervised release. See Id.
On December 18, 2006, Tinklenberg appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit claiming that the district court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the indictment. See U.S. v. Tinklenberg, 579 F.3d at 591. Tinklenberg argued that his trial began after the 70-day deadline under the STA. See Id. The Sixth Circuit agreed with Tinklenberg and found that Tinklenberg’s trial violated the STA. See Id. The Sixth Circuit stated that the STA only excludes the time that a pretrial motion actually delays or causes an expectation of delaying the beginning of the trial. See Id. at 599. The Sixth Circuit thus included in its STA count the days in which the two August 2006 motions were filed, pending, and resolved. See Id. Therefore, under the Sixth Circuit’s calculation, a total of 73 includable days passed before Tinklenberg’s trial started. See Id. at 600. As a result, the Sixth Circuit reversed Tinklenberg’s conviction and remanded with instructions to dismiss the indictment with prejudice. See Id. at 601. The United States petitioned the Supreme Court for review, and on September 28, 2010, the Supreme Court granted certiorari. See Brief for Petitioner, United States of America at 1.
In this case, the United States argues that the Speedy Trial Act (“STA”) automatically excludes all pretrial motions from its 70-day time limit. See Brief for Petitioner, United States at 15–16. Jason Tinklenberg argues that pretrial motions are excludable only if delay of trial actually results or threatens to result from the time needed to dispose of a pretrial motion. See Brief for Respondent, Jason Tinklenberg at 12–14.
Language: Competing Definitions of Delay
The parties disagree about the meaning of “delay resulting from any pretrial motion” in 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1)(D). See Brief for Petitioner at 15. The United States argues that a common dictionary definition of “delay” includes a period between two events. See Id. at 17. Delay, according to the United States, is used in the STA to refer to the postponement of the STA’s 70-day time limit during the resolution of a pretrial motion. See Id.The United States points to the fact that the STA excludes the entire period needed to resolve the pretrial motion rather than merely the delay to the actual trial date. See Id. at 18. Moreover, the government points to prior Supreme Court holdings rejecting a requirement for findings of fact before a pretrial motion can be excluded. See Id. at 17. Finally, the government argues that the clear language of the STA excludes “any” pretrial motion, not merely motions that postpone the trial date. See Id. at 19–20. It contends that if “delay” does change the meaning of “any,” it would be only account for motions that actually postpone the trial, which is a narrower reading than that proposed by the Sixth Circuit. See Id.
Tinklenberg argues that the government relies on the least common dictionary definition of delay, and that all other definitions include the concept of postponement. See Brief for Respondent at 14–15. Moreover, Tinklenberg argues that the STA’s intended function, which is to increase the efficiency and speed of the federal trial courts, suggests that only pretrial motions which actually delay the trial should be excluded. See id. at 28–29, 32. In addition, Tinklenberg argues that Congress, in other sections of the U.S. Code, uses the word “any” to indicate possibility, and therefore “any” means that pretrial motions might be excludable, but that not all will. See id. at 19–20. Finally, Tinklenberg argues that “delay resulting from any pretrial motion” means trial courts may exclude delays that any pretrial motion may cause. See id. at 17.
Structure: Automatic Versus Findings-Based Exclusions
The United States argues that Congress differentiated between two kinds of excludable delays: those that require a factual inquiry and those that are automatically excludable. See Brief for Petitioner at 24–25. The government explains that the automatic exclusions, which include pretrial motions, are listed in the STA at 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1). See Id. The government contends that pretrial motions are routine and impact trial structure and content; by automatically excluding pre-trial motions from the 70-day count, courts are able to avoid a fact-by-fact inquiry into whether the motion will possibly or actually delay trial. See Id. at 25–26. The United States argues that the structure of the statute indicates that Congress concluded that all pre-trial motions, regardless of their particular effect, should automatically delay the 70-day count in order to avoid too many fact-specific inquiries. See Id. at 24–26.
Tinklenberg counters that an actual delay requirement would not be wasteful. See Brief for Respondent at 28. He explains that inquiries are often unnecessary, unless a court fails to bring a case to trial before the expiration of the 70-day period. See id. at 30. Tinklenberg argues that even in cases of delay, the prosecution need only show that the cause of the delay was on the list of specifically excludable activities in 28 U.S.C. § 3161(h)(1); once it has done so, the trial court may exclude the entire period at issue. See id. at 22. This, he argues, is not a difficult or time-consuming determination. See id. at 28–32.
Precedent: What Do Henderson and Bloate Hold?
The government contends that Henderson v. United States, 476 U.S. 321 (1986), held that a pretrial motion automatically delays the 70-day count. See Brief for Petitioner at 21. Moreover, the government argues, the Supreme Court came to this holding without any reference to trial dates, which the government points to as support for its argument that the STA does not require actual delay. See Id. at 20–22. The government argues that Henderson’s holding logically extends to the question in the current case. See Id. at 22. The United States argues, these facts indicate that pretrial motions automatically stop the 70-day count, without reference to case-specific inquiries. See Id. at 21–22.
Tinklenberg explains that in Henderson, the trial began several months after its scheduled start date to resolve a complex pretrial motion. See Brief for Respondent at 24. He contends that the Henderson Court assumed that the pretrial motion caused the delay, without making an inquiry into the facts. See id. Thus, Tinklenberg argues, Henderson confirms that if a delay is caused by a pretrial motion, the STA allows the trial court to exclude that time, but it did not address the issue before this Court. See id. at 23–24.
In Bloate v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 1345 (2010), the Supreme Court held that the STA requires a finding that justice will be served when granting additional time to prepare pretrial motions. See Brief for Petitioner at 23–24. The government argues that Bloate held that the time used to resolve pretrial motions is automatically excludable, and that courts are not required to make findings of fact in that regard. See Id. at 23–25.
Tinklenberg argues that the word “automatic” as used in Bloate, refers to what the court has to do after it determines that a pretrial motion may delay trial. See Brief for Respondent at 24–25. Tinklenberg points out that in Bloate the Court specifically held that once a pretrial motion has delayed a trial, the time taken to resolve the motion is excludable from the STA clock, without any additional findings. See id. at 24. From this holding, Tinklenberg infers that the initial finding of delay is required before the court can adjust the STA clock. See id.
The United States argues that the Sixth Circuit erred in its statutory interpretation of the Speedy Trial Act (“STA”). See Brief for Petitioner, United States of America at 11. The United States asserts that the STA includes any pretrial motion that delays the trial schedule even if the motion doesn’t cause an actual delay or an expectation of a delay of the trial date at the time it is filed. See Id. However, Tinklenberg argues that the Sixth Circuit was correct to hold that “the speedy trial clock did not stop during the six days while the Government’s two…motions…were pending.” See Brief for Respondent, Jason Louis Tinklenberg at 7.
The United States argues that the STA’s time limit rule must be effective and workable. See Brief for Petitioner at 34. According to the United States, there must be a clear STA rule that automatically excludes the time between when a party files a pretrial motion and the court rules on it. See Id. The United States contends that a clear rule informs all the parties involved—the government, the criminal defendant, and the district court—whether they are approaching the 70-day deadline under the STA as soon as a pretrial motion is filed. See Id. at 34–35. This allows all parties to schedule their time and resources accordingly. See Id. at 35–36.
However, Tinklenberg argues that the Sixth Circuit’s rule is workable because it is relatively simple to determine whether a motion will cause delay. See Brief for Respondent at 28. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) agrees with Tinklenberg and argues that it is almost always possible to determine whether a pretrial motion will cause a delay on the trial date depending on the type of motion filed. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) in Support of Respondent at 6. For example, according to NACDL, substantive motions will likely cause delays while administrative motions will not cause delays. See Id. at 7–8. In addition, NACDL contends that “borderline” motions could toll the speedy trial clock unless the court finds that a party has a valid objection against doing so. See Id. at 8–9.
The United States argues that the Sixth Circuit’s rule goes against the STA’s purpose of providing a clear and workable trial date schedule. See Brief for Petitioner at 39. The United States identifies a potential harm: if a court takes a fact-specific approach on whether a pretrial motion actually delays or is expected to delay the trial date, neither the court nor the parties know whether the case is violating the STA until the motion is carried out. See Id. at 36–37. The United States adds that fact-specific determinations will force courts to become sidetracked by collateral causation questions addressing whether a pretrial motion or another simultaneous court proceeding was responsible for delaying the trial. See Id. at 37–38.
Tinklenberg also argues that the STA’s primary purpose is to provide speedy trials. See Brief for Respondent at 32. Tinklenberg asserts that courts are going against the STA’s purpose if they exclude the time spent on administrative pretrial motions that do not actually delay the parties’ preparations for trial. See Id. at 32–33. Tinklenberg also points out that federal prosecutors could abuse the STA by filing frivolous pretrial motions in order to delay the speedy trial clock. See Id. at 35.
The United States argues that the Sixth Circuit’s rule will produce arbitrary results. See Brief for Petitioner at 38. According to the United States the results would vary widely because one court could take into account any possible pretrial motions when initially setting the trial date while another does not. See Id. The United States also asserts that if the court sets the initial trial date after the pretrial motions are filed, it is unclear how the court could assess whether there was a STA violation. See Id. at 38–39.
NACDL adds that the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of the STA would benefit both categories of defendants. See Brief of NACDL at 11. First, according to NACDL, defendants who assert their right to a speedy trial will benefit from the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation because the government should not be able to delay the clock for these defendants by filing routine administrative motions. See Id. NACDL asserts that filing motions in this abusive manner would undermine the STA’s purpose of providing defendants with a speedy trial. See Id. NACDL states that defendants who want to delay the speedy trial clock would also benefit from the Sixth Circuit’s opinion because these defendants are at risk if judges rush through substantive pretrial motions in the fear of violating the STA. See id.
The Supreme Court will decide whether the Speedy Trial Act’s 70-day time limit automatically excludes the time between a party’s filing of a pretrial motion and the trial court’s determination on the motion. The United States argues that the Speedy Trial Act is a clear-cut rule designed for efficiency, and that courts should automatically exclude the time used to determine pretrial motions. Tinklenberg counters that the Speedy Trial Act excludes pretrial motions only if the motions delay the trial date or are expected to delay the trial date. This case’s outcome will affect not only how a trial court determines whether a pretrial motion triggers the speedy trial clock, but also whether parties could use pretrial motions as strategic tools to delay criminal trials.