Most people know that the Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to a trial, "without unnecessary delay". However, in the federal system, defendants also have speedy trial rights under statutory law. Specifically, the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 requires a criminal trial to commence within 70 days from the date the Information or Indictment was filed or from the date the defendant appears before an officer of the court during his first appearance, whichever is later. While the Speedy Trial Act may seem simple, it is often the subject of litigation, because the 70 days provided in the act can often actually go much longer before a defendant is entitled to a trial on his criminal charges.
Certain periods of pretrial delay are automatically excluded from the 70-day timer. For instance, if a party files a pretrial motion, the period between the filing of the motion hearings and the ultimate disposition of the motion does not count. In addition to these automatic categories, the court can also grant a continuance and exclude that period of time from the Speedy Trial deadline. However, when doing so, the court must make a finding that the continuance would serve "the ends of justice" and that the reason for the continuance outweighs the interests of the public and the defendant in having a speedy trial.
Understandably, there is often disagreement regarding how much time a defendant has before they need to be tried. While these types of issues may seem hyper-technical, the stakes are high because a defendant whose speedy trial clock has run can move to dismiss the criminal charges against him. A recent decision out of the Eleventh Circuit, called United States vs. Hughes, demonstrates how interpretations over the speedy trial clock can differ. Hughes involved a situation where the government filed a petition seeking a warrant for Hughes arrest. During his pretrial criminal proceedings, the government made an oral motion to detain Hughes pending the trial. However, Hughes attorney requested a continuance after the oral motion so that he could have more time to respond to the government's request. The Court granted the continuance, but never made any findings that the continuance was in the interest of justice.
On appeal, Hughes argued that his speedy trial rights had been violated because the delay was a result of a continuance granted by the judge, without an express finding that the interests of justice outweighed the defendant's interest in the speedy trial. The government, however, contended that because the continuance was a result of their oral motion to detain the defendant, the delay was actually the result of a pretrial motion, which is excluded from the speedy trial period automatically. The Eleventh Circuit sided with the government and held that any time a party in a criminal case files a pretrial motion, the delay between the time the motion was filed and the disposition of the motion automatically was excluded from the speedy trial clock. Therefore, according to the court, it did not matter whether delay was framed as a continuance.
Often, an effective criminal defense attorney can get a difficult case dismissed if the government and court does not strictly adhere to the requirements of the Speedy Trial Act. Therefore it is always best to look into whether the defendant is actually tried within 70 days of the filing of the Information or Indictment, and if they are not, determine the reasons for those delays.