The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury. Criminal defendants must be brought to a public trial for their alleged crimes within a reasonably short time after a police officer arrests them. The Sixth Amendment also guarantees that, before being convicted of most crimes, the defendant has a constitutional right to a fair trial by a jury. The jury must find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
This article summarizes speedy trials. It covers your constitutional rights regarding a criminal trial. It also explains the jury's role in a criminal trial and how a criminal defendant may waive their right to a speedy trial.
What Is a Speedy Trial?
A speedy trial means that the defendant is tried for their alleged crimes within a reasonable time period. Most states have laws that set forth the amount of time in which a trial must take place after law enforcement charges a criminal defendant. Often, the issue of whether a trial is speedy enough depends on the circumstances of the case itself and the reasons for any delays.
When a court determines that the delay between arrest and trial was unreasonable and prejudicial to the defendant, the court may dismiss the case altogether. However, a defendant's request to dismiss a case is not technically one of their speedy trial rights. Instead, they simply ask a court to consider their constitutional right to a speedy trial. The court will then determine whether any delay was unreasonable.
The United States Constitution does not precisely define what a speedy trial is. Unsurprisingly, much litigation and legislation has helped to determine time limits for a speedy trial.
The U.S. Supreme Court has laid out factors to consider when deciding whether the time to trial was speedy enough. As detailed in Barker v. Wingo (1972), these factors are:
- The length of the delay
- The reason for the delay
- The defendant's assertion of their right
- The prejudice to the defendant
While the Supreme Court provides some guidance, Congress and many states have passed laws to provide specific time limits for a trial. In 1974, Congress passed the federal Speedy Trial Act. It sets a time limit of 70 days from the filing date of the indictment unless the defendant waives the time limit.
If the prosecution can show good cause for a delay, the court may excuse it. For example, if the court's docket is crowded, it may constitute good cause for a delay. Moreover, the court will not consider certain pretrial actions when determining whether a delay in the criminal proceeding was unreasonable.
For example, suppose a criminal defendant undergoes a competency examination before the trial date. When calculating speedy trial deadlines, the court will not consider the time it takes to conduct the evaluation and provide a report to the court.
Many states have also passed legislation about time limits to bring a criminal matter to trial. In California, for instance, the law dictates that a person charged with a felony shall be brought to trial within 60 days of arraignment. The time frame is 30 days for a misdemeanor charge if the defendant is in custody. If a person charged with a misdemeanor is not in custody, the court must conduct the trial within 45 days, according to California penal code. A criminal defendant charged in California may bring a pretrial motion (a “Serna" motion) if they believe the prosecution unreasonably delayed their trial.
What Is the Jury's Role at Trial?
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to be tried before an impartial jury. The jury represents a cross-section of the community. The jurors will consider the evidence against the defendant and decide whether to find them guilty of the crime(s) charged.
For criminal trials in every state, 12 jurors must unanimously agree to find a defendant guilty or not guilty. That means that if the jury fails to reach a unanimous verdict and finds itself at a standstill (called a "hung jury"), the judge may declare a mistrial. If the court declares a mistrial, it will dismiss the case. Alternatively, it may call for a new trial.
Waiving Your Right to a Speedy Jury Trial
Given the short periods of time required to begin a trial, it is often in the defendant's best interests to waive the right to a speedy trial. A waiver gives the defense more time to prepare to defend the case and find favorable witnesses or evidence. Waiving the right to a speedy trial is common, especially in felony cases. A defendant may waive the right via a written declaration.
Granted, waiving a speedy trial gives the prosecutor more time, too. However, the prosecutor typically spends considerable time preparing the criminal case before they charge the defendant and the "speedy trial" clock begins.
Protect Your Right to a Speedy Trial: Consult With an Attorney
Your state may not have a specific timeline for a trial after your arrest. However, unreasonable delays by the prosecution can violate your constitutional rights. Having an experienced and tested criminal defense lawyer in your corner gives you a watchdog to protect this and other rights. A criminal defense attorney can provide you with legal advice on the following:
- General information about criminal law, criminal procedure, and a criminal defendant's rights
- Specific information regarding your criminal charges and criminal prosecution
- Your speedy trial rights, speedy trial motions, and potential speedy trial violations
- Whether the length of the delay violates your constitutional rights
- The defense and litigation strategy if you are charged with a crime, such as DUI or domestic violence
If law enforcement has charged you with a crime, consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer near you.