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Right to a Speedy Trial: What Does It Mean?

There are legal phrases we hear all the time, and "the right to a speedy trial" is one of those. But what does the right entail, and just how speedy is speedy enough?

Because each criminal case is unique, there is no one answer to this question. But here are some considerations when thinking about speedy trial issues:

A Constitutional Right

The Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy trial, but doesn't go into a whole lot of detail:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed...

The idea is to avoid indefinite pre-trial imprisonment for defendants and ensure that a trial is held on the best available evidence -- i.e., physical and testimonial evidence that has degraded or disappeared over time. If prosecutors fail to begin the trial in a reasonable amount of time, the charges may be dismissed.

For federal crimes, the Speedy Trial Act gives the government 30 days after an arrest to file an indictment, then 70 days from the indictment to begin a trial.

For local jurisdictions, it's up to states to determine how long prosecutors have to get their case before a jury. Some states omit speedy trial statutes altogether, in which case they are held to the Constitutional standard of as soon as reasonably possible.

But Not an Absolute Right

While statutes will generally assert a definitive timeline for criminal trials, delays can and do happen; however, not all of them will result in dismissal. When courts review speedy trial issues, they will look at factors such as:

  • The length of and reason for the delay,
  • Whether the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial, and
  • Whether the delay hindered the defense.

Because the right to a speedy trial rests with the defendant, it is up to him or her to "use it or lose it," in a sense. A defendant can explicitly waive his right to a speedy trial, which he may do to take more time to prepare his defense.

A defendant could also implicitly waive his right to a speedy trial if a trial delay is the defendant's fault, or if he doesn't assert his right to a speedy trial before the trial begins.

Criminal charges are serious matters, and a criminal defense attorney is your best resource for answers specific to your case.

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