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No Right to a Speedy Sentencing, the Supreme Court Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 19, 2016 1:57 PM

After Brandon Betterman pleaded guilty to bail jumping, he spent over 14 months in jail, simply waiting to be sentenced. Betterman eventually appealed, arguing that the year-long delay violated his right to a speedy trial.

But, unfortunately for Betterman and the many other individuals who can wait months before being sentenced, the Sixth Amendment's speedy trial guarantee does not include a right to a speedy sentencing, the Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous opinion released this morning.

Over a Year Between Plea and Sentence

Betterman was originally ordered to court on domestic assault charges -- but he skipped those proceedings, leading to his subsequent guilty plea on bail-jumping charges. After that plea, Betterman was locked up for over a year, largely due to institutional delays. His presentencing report, for example, took almost five months to complete, while the trial court took months to rule on presentencing motions. In the end, Betterman was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, with four years of the sentence suspended.

Betterman appealed, arguing that the large gap between his guilty plea and his sentencing violated the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a right to a speedy trial. The Montana Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, holding the Speedy Trial Clause did not apply to post-conviction delay. Today, the Supreme Court agreed.

Three Phases of Criminal Proceedings, With Three Distinct Protections

In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, the Court laid out the protections afforded during criminal proceedings. Each proceeding can be broken into three parts, Justice Ginsburg explained. At the onset, there is the arrest and charge. During that discrete phase, the accused's rights against delay are protected primarily through statutes of limitations and Due Process protections against prosecutorial misconduct.

The Speedy Trial Clause comes in to play only when a defendant has been arrested or formally charged. The clause's role is to protect against "undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial," the Court explained. That right extends all the way back to the Magna Carta and has always focused on the idea of protecting the innocent. That history is reflected in the Sixth Amendment itself, which talks of "the accused" and the right to a trial only.

Once convicted, the Speedy Trial Clause goes away, the Supreme Court announced. After all, there is no innocent party left to protect.

That's not to say those facing ridiculous pre-sentencing delay are wholly without recourse. As the Court notes, due process claims can prevent exorbitant delay, as can Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32, which requires courts to "impose sentence without unnecessary delay." Betterman, however, did not advance those claims, relying solely on the Sixth Amendment -- and a right the Court wasn't willing to stretch beyond the trial phase.

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