Betterman v. Montana

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Betterman v. Montana.


Does the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution?

Oral argument: 
March 28, 2016
Court below: 

In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the delay between a criminal defendant’s guilty plea and sentencing violates the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment. Betterman argues that the fundamental nature of the Speedy Trial Clause, as well as the Supreme Court’s precedent, supports applying the clause to delays in a defendant’s sentencing. Montana counters that the Speedy Trial Clause was never intended to apply to sentencing and that the Supreme Court’s precedent supports this position. The outcome of this case could affect the ability of convicted defendants to mount an adequate defense at sentencing.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Does the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution, protecting a criminal defendant from inordinate delay in the final disposition of his case?


In December of 2011, petitioner Brandon Thomas Betterman failed to comply with two court orders to appear pursuant to charges of felony domestic assault. Betterman turned himself in two months later and was charged with felony bail jumping on March 5, 2012. On March 15, 2012, Betterman was sentenced to five years in prison for his felony domestic assault conviction, with the final two years subject to suspension if certain conditions were met. Betterman’s arraignment on the bail jumping charge was scheduled for April 19, 2012. The day before the arraignment, the State indicated its desire to treat Betterman as a persistent felony offender, which carries a sentencing enhancement penalty. Betterman pled guilty to bail jumping at his arraignment, and the State filed a notice to designate him a persistent felony offender. Betterman moved to strike this designation. On June 28, 2012, the District Court held a hearing on this motion, which was denied five months later on November 27, 2012.

After the denial, the court set Betterman’s sentencing hearing on the felony bail jumping charge for January 17, 2013. At this sentencing hearing, Betterman filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the delay between his guilty plea and sentencing had deprived him “of his right to a speedy trial under the Montana and United States Constitutions.” About two months after filing this motion, the State and Betterman’s attorney jointly contacted the court for an update on the status of the motion and were informed that the decision could not be expedited.

On April 29, 2013, the district court denied Betterman’s motion to dismiss. On May 6, 2013, Betterman filed an affidavit that claimed he was unable to participate in certain programs that would make him eligible for early release because he was in jail. Betterman filed the affidavit along with a motion to reconsider, and the motion was denied on June 18, 2013. On June 27, 2013, Betterman was sentenced to seven years in prison. Because Betterman was already serving a sentence for felony domestic assault, his incarceration during the delay in sentencing was applied to his felony domestic assault sentence rather than his bail-jumping sentence.

Betterman appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, asserting that his right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment and Montana Constitution was violated because of the 14-month delay between his guilty plea and sentencing. However, the court held that because Betterman’s guilt was established by his guilty plea, his right to a speedy trial did not apply to a delay in sentencing. The court recognized that a defendant has a constitutional right to be sentenced without unreasonable delay under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment but held that the delay in Betterman’s case did not meet the constitutional standard because he had not demonstrated any prejudice from the delay.

On December 4, 2015, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine the constitutionality of the delay in Betterman’s sentencing.


Betterman argues that the history and purposes underlying the Speedy Trial Clause, as well as the Supreme Court’s precedent, support the application of the clause to delays in a defendant’s sentencing. Montana counters that the Framers of the Constitution and the Supreme Court never intended the Speedy Trial Clause to apply to sentencing and that due process analysis is the proper means for reviewing presentencing delays.


In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment applies to sentencing. The resolution of this case will impact the scope of criminal defendants’ constitutional rights and potentially implicate what remedies are afforded to the criminal defendant as a result of sentencing delays.


The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) argues in support of Betterman that applying the Speedy Trial Clause to sentencing hearings helps prevent against oppressive pre-trial incarceration. NACDL points to the fact that defendants awaiting the sentencing phase of trial are not held in prisons or correctional facilities but in jails, which are not designed to accommodate prolonged incarcerations. NACDL asserts that jails are generally overcrowded and are unable to isolate prisoners that pose exceptional security risks. Further, NACDL contends that jails have inadequate medical care. To illustrate this point, NACDL cites the unique medical needs of incarcerated populations, such as the prevalence of chronic medical conditions and the fact that prison inmates are three times more likely to receive professional treatment than inmates in jail. Finally, NACDL notes that jails lack the rehabilitation and betterment programs that are present in prisons.

The United States, in support of Montana, responds to NACDL’s arguments by noting that the defendant in these cases has already been convicted. United States contends that a defendant who has been convicted of a crime loses the right to avoid circumstances of incarceration that do not violate the constitution. In other words, because a defendant’s sentence can constitutionally impose conditions similar to those in a jail, there is no speedy trial interest in avoiding these same conditions when a defendant has already been convicted of a crime. Further, the United States notes that the harm suffered by a defendant who is unable to complete required rehabilitation programs because of a sentencing delay is completely speculative. Additionally, several states writing in support of Montana contend that states are already making several efforts to address the delay in sentencing, so an extension of the Speedy Trial Clause to is unnecessary.


NACDL argues that delays in sentencing can lead to serious prejudice against those defendants that are incarcerated during the delay. NACDL points out that a defendant’s defense does not end once the defendant has been convicted because there is still the opportunity to introduce mitigating evidence that could affect sentencing. NACDL cites sections of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that instruct the court to make factual determinations at sentencing that can determine whether a sentence will fall between one and twenty years. NACDL also argues that incarcerated defendants facing a delay in their sentencing are usually precluded from serving concurrent sentences. Finally, NACDL points out that defendants seeking appeal are also burdened by sentencing delays because if a defendant is exonerated on appeal, he or she may have already wrongfully spent a significant time in jail awaiting sentencing.

The United States responds by emphasizing that defendants at sentencing do not have a “presumptive entitlement to leniency.” In regards to concerns about the challenges of introducing mitigating evidence, the United States argues that evidence pertaining to the character of the defendant, a core aspect of mitigating sentences, is unaffected by the delay. Finally, the United States argues that an undesirable result of applying the Speedy Trial Clause to delays in criminal sentencing would be an unjustified benefit for some defendants. It is possible that defendants who suffered no actual harm from the delay would be granted relief based on a presumption of prejudice because the Speedy Trial Clause does not require defendants to show a “particularized showing of prejudice.” As a result, because the remedy for these violations is generally dismissal of the charges, people guilty of crimes would escape judgment merely due to an error in scheduling sentencing.


In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause applies to extended delays in the sentencing of a criminal defendant. Both Betterman and Montana contend that the Supreme Court must examine the history and purposes of the Speedy Trial Clause to decide whether it is applicable in the context of convicted persons awaiting sentencing. This case has significant implications for defendants awaiting sentencing as well as for courts that schedule sentencing hearings.

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