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Sixth Amendment Right to a Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment provides several important rights for those accused of a crime. You've probably heard of the right to a trial by jury, but the right to have your criminal case heard by a jury of your peers has a few nuances attached to it. One of those is the right to a speedy trial, meaning a person cannot be held for an unreasonable amount of time awaiting trial. What this means, has been up to the Supreme Court to decide.

If you or someone you know faces criminal charges and proceedings have stalled, consult an attorney as soon as possible. You have the right to counsel from someone with your interests at heart.

What the Sixth Amendment Says

"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, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

What It Means

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

The Magna Carta declared "wee shall not . . . deny or delay Justice and right, neither the end, which is Justice, nor the meane, whereby we may attaine to the end, and that is the law."1 Much the same language was incorporated into the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 17762 and from there into the Sixth Amendment. The right to a speedy trial is a right of an accused, but it serves the interests of defendants and society alike. The provision is an important safeguard to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial, to minimize anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation, and to limit the possibility that long delay will impair the ability of an accused to defend himself.3 But on the other hand, there is a societal interest in providing a speedy trial that exists separate from and at times in opposition to the interests of the accused. Persons in jail must be supported at considerable public expense and often families must be assisted as well. Persons free in the community after arrest may commit other crimes, lengthy intervals between arrest and trial may promote bail jumping, and growing backlogs of cases may motivate plea bargaining that does not always match society's expectations for justice. And delay may retard the deterrent and rehabilitative effects of the criminal law.4

When the Right to a Speedy Trial Applies

The history of the right to a speedy trial and its reception in this country clearly establish that it is one of the most basic rights preserved by our Constitution. So finding, the Supreme Court held in the 1967 case of Klopfer v. North Carolina that the right to a speedy trial is one of those fundamental liberties that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes applicable to the states.5 But beyond its widespread applicability in state and federal prosecutions are questions of when the right attaches and detaches, when it is violated, and how violations may be remedied.

The timeline between the commission of a crime and its trial may include an extended period for gathering evidence and deciding to commence a prosecution. Prejudice that may result from delays between discovering a crime and completing its investigation, or between discovering sufficient evidence to proceed against a suspect and instituting proceedings, is guarded against primarily by statutes of limitation, which represent a legislative judgment with regard to permissible periods of delay.The protection afforded by the speedy trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment is activated only when a criminal prosecution has begun and extends only to those persons who have been 'accused' in the course of that prosecution.7 Nevertheless, invocation of the right need not always await indictment, information, or other formal charge but can begin with the actual restraints imposed by arrest if those restraints precede the formal preferring of charges.8

In two cases involving both detention and formal charges, the Court held that the speedy trial guarantee had been violated by states that brought criminal charges against persons who were already incarcerated in prisons of other jurisdictions when the states that brought the criminal charges had ignored the defendants' requests to be given prompt trials and had made no effort through requests to the prison authorities of the other jurisdictions to obtain custody of the prisoners for purposes of trial.9 But an individual's speedy trial rights can be at issue even when he is not subject to detention and it is uncertain whether the government will ever pursue further prosecution. Thus, a state practice permitting a prosecutor to take nolle prosequi with leave, which discharged an indicted defendant from custody but left him subject at any time thereafter to prosecution at the discretion of the prosecutor, was condemned as violating the guarantee of a speedy trial.10

The Court has, however, distinguished the concluding phase of a criminal prosecution—or the period between conviction and sentencing—from earlier phases involving (1) the investigation to determine whether to arrest a suspect and bring charges and (2) the period between when charges are brought and when the defendant is convicted upon trial or a guilty plea.11 In Betterman v. Montana, the Court held that the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial detaches once the defendant is convicted and, thus, does not protect against delays in sentencing.12 The Court reached this conclusion, in part, by analogizing the speedy trial right to other protections that cease to apply upon conviction.13

The Betterman Court's conclusion was also based on originalist reasoning, noting that when the Sixth Amendment was adopted, the term accused implied a status preceding conviction, while the term trial connoted a discrete event that would be followed by sentencing.14 Practical considerations also informed the Court's conclusion. In particular, the Betterman Court raised concerns about the potential windfall that defendants would enjoy if the standard remedy for speedy trial violations—namely, dismissal of the charges—were to be applied after conviction.15 Finally, the Court, relying on the federal government's and states' practices in implementing the speedy trial guarantee, observed that the federal Speedy Trial Act and numerous state analogs impose precise time limits for charging and trial, but are silent with respect to sentencing, suggesting that historical practice was consistent with the Court's interpretation of the scope of the Speedy Trial Clause.16 At the same time, the Court did not view the reliance on plea agreements, instead of trials, in the contemporary criminal justice system as requiring a different outcome, noting that there are other protections against excessive delays in sentencing available to defendants, including the Due Process Clause and Federal Rule of Criminal Procure 32(b)(1).17

How "Speedy" Does the Trial Have to Be?

The right of a speedy trial is necessarily relative. It is consistent with delays and depends upon circumstances. It secures rights to a defendant. It does not preclude the rights of public justice.18 No length of time is per se too long to pass scrutiny under this guarantee,19 but neither does the defendant have to show actual prejudice by delay.20 The Court, rather, has adopted an ad hoc balancing approach. We can do little more than identify some of the factors which courts should assess in determining whether a particular defendant has been deprived of his right. Though some might express them in different ways, we identify four such factors: Length of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant.21

The fact of delay triggers an inquiry and is dependent on the circumstances of the case. Reasons for delay will vary. A deliberate delay for advantage will weigh heavily, whereas the absence of a witness would justify an appropriate delay, and such factors as crowded dockets and negligence will fall between these other factors.22 It is the duty of the prosecution to bring a defendant to trial, and the failure of the defendant to demand the right is not to be construed as a waiver of the right.23 Yet, the defendant's acquiescence in delay when it works to his advantage should be considered against his later assertion that he was denied the guarantee, while the defendant's responsibility for the delay would preclude a claim altogether. A delay caused by assigned counsel should generally be attributed to the defendant, not to the state. However, [d]elay resulting from a systemic 'breakdown in the public defender system' could be charged to the State.24 Finally, a court should look to the possible prejudices and disadvantages suffered by a defendant during a delay.25

More on the Sixth Amendment


  1. Ch. 40 of the 1215 Magna Carta, a portion of ch. 29 of the 1225 reissue, translated and quoted by E. Coke, The Second Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England 56 (Garland 1979 facsimile of 1642 ed.). See also Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 223–24 (1967). The Klopfer Court cites an even earlier reference to a right to a speedy trial, dating from 1166. Id. at 223.
  2. 7 F. Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions H. Doc. No. 357, 59th Congress, 2d Sess. 8, 3813 (1909).
  3. United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116, 120 (1966)See also Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 221–22 (1967)Smith v. Hooey, 393 U.S. 374, 377–379 (1969)Dickey v. Florida, 398 U.S. 30, 37–38 (1970).
  4. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 519 (1972)Dickey v. Florida, 398 U.S. 30, 42 (1970) (Justice Brennan concurring). The Speedy Trial Act of 1974, Pub. L. No. 93-619, 88 Stat. 2076, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3161-74, codified the law with respect to the right, intending to give effect to the sixth amendment right to a speedy trial. S. Rep. No. 1021, 93d Congress, 2d Sess. 1 (1974).
  5. Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 226 (1967).
  6. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 322–23 (1971)Cf. Toussie v. United States, 397 U.S. 112, 114–15 (1970). In some circumstances, pre-accusation delay could constitute a due process violation but not a speedy trial problem. If prejudice results to a defendant because of the government's delay, a court should balance the degree of prejudice against the reasons for delay given by the prosecution. Marion, 404 U.S. at 324; United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783 (1977)United States v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1, 8 (1982).
  7. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 313 (1971). Justices Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall disagreed, arguing that the right to a speedy trial is the right to be brought to trial speedily which would seem to be as relevant to pretrial indictment delays as it is to post-indictment delays, but concurring because they did not think the guarantee violated under the facts of the case. Id. at 328. In United States v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1 (1982), the Court held the clause was not implicated by the action of the United States when, in May of 1970, it proceeded with a charge of murder against defendant under military law but dismissed the charge in October of that year, and he was discharged in December. In June of 1972, the investigation was reopened, but a grand jury was not convened until August of 1974, and MacDonald was not indicted until January of 1975. The period between dismissal of the first charge and the later indictment had none of the characteristics which called for application of the speedy trial clause. Only the period between arrest and indictment must be considered in evaluating a speedy trial claim. Marion and MacDonald were applied in United States v. Loud Hawk, 474 U.S. 302 (1986), holding the speedy trial guarantee inapplicable to the period during which the government appealed dismissal of an indictment, since during that time the suspect had not been subject to bail or otherwise restrained.
  8. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 320, 321 (1971).
  9. Smith v. Hooey, 393 U.S. 374 (1969)Dickey v. Florida, 398 U.S. 30 (1970).
  10. Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213 (1967) (the statute of limitations had been tolled by the indictment). In Pollard v. United States, 352 U.S. 354 (1957), the majority assumed and the dissent asserted that sentence is part of the trial and that too lengthy or unjustified a delay in imposing sentence could run afoul of this guarantee.
  11. Betterman v. Montana, 136 S. Ct. 1609, 1613 (2016).
  12. Id. at 1610, 1613.
  13. Id. at 1614 (noting, for example, that proof beyond a reasonable doubt is required for conviction, but sentencing factors need only be proved by a preponderance of the evidence).
  14. Id. at 1614–15.
  15. Id. at 1615.
  16. Id. at 1615–16.
  17. Id. at 1616–17 (noting, among other things that the Due Process Clause serves as a backstop against exorbitant delay). The majority in Betterman did not address how a due process claim for an allegedly excessive delay in sentencing should be analyzed.
  18. Beavers v. Haubert, 198 U.S. 77, 87 (1905) (holding that the guarantee could not be invoked by a defendant first indicted in one district to prevent removal to another district where he had also been indicted). A determination that a defendant has been denied his right to a speedy trial results in a decision to dismiss the indictment or to reverse a conviction in order that the indictment be dismissed. Strunk v. United States, 412 U.S. 434 (1973). A trial court denial of a motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds is not an appealable order under the collateral order exception to the finality rule. One must raise the issue on appeal from a conviction. United States v. MacDonald, 435 U.S. 850 (1978).
  19. Cf. Pollard v. United States, 352 U.S. 354 (1957)United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116 (1966)See United States v. Provoo, 350 U.S. 857 (1955), aff'g 17 F.R.D. 183 (D. Md. 1955).
  20. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 320 (1971)Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 536 (1972) (Justice White concurring).
  21. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530 (1972). For the federal courts, Congress under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 imposed strict time deadlines, replacing the Barker factors.
  22. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 531 (1972). Delays caused by the prosecution's interlocutory appeal will be judged by the Barker factors, of which the second—the reason for the appeal—is the most important. United States v. Loud Hawk, 474 U.S. 302 (1986) (no denial of speedy trial, since prosecution's position on appeal was strong, and there was no showing of bad faith or dilatory purpose). If the interlocutory appeal is taken by the defendant, he must bear the heavy burden of showing an unreasonable delay caused by the prosecution [or] wholly unjustifiable delay by the appellate court in order to win dismissal on speedy trial grounds. Id. at 316.
  23. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. at 528. See generally id. at 523–29. Waiver is an intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or privilege, Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 464 (1938), and it is not to be presumed but must appear from the record to have been intelligently and understandingly made. Carnley v. Cochran, 369 U.S. 506, 516 (1962).
  24. Vermont v. Brillon, 129 S. Ct. 1283, 1292 (2009) (citation omitted).
  25. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 532 (1972).
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