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May 19 — A defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial doesn't include a right to be sentenced without undue delay, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 19.
The ruling is significant not only because it resolves a lower court split, but also because it suggests that some sentencing delays may violate the due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
Court watchers interviewed by Bloomberg BNA said the decision wasn't a surprise.
“This would have been a bigger story if the court had ruled the other way,” Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who is now a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg BNA.
But given that the remedy for a violation of the speedy trial right is dismissal of the case, it seemed highly unlikely the court would hold that the speedy trial right extends to sentencing, Levenson said.
Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, agreed. “This is a really straightforward decision,” Scheidegger told Bloomberg BNA.
The Constitution guarantees that an accused be given a speedy trial, Scheidegger said.
“Does that guarantee apply after trial, or after a person has waived trial by pleading guilty? Of course not,” he added.
Brandon Thomas Betterman languished in jail for 14 months before he was sentenced after he pleaded guilty to felony bail-jumping.
The Montana Supreme Court ruled that he had no legitimate Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim and further held that his due process claim failed because the reason for the delay was mostly institutional. It also said his claims of prejudice were too vague and speculative because they dealt with anticipated benefits or participation in certain programs (96 CrL 523, 2/18/15).
Betterman's lawyers only pressed the Sixth Amendment claim in their petition for certiorari.
The justices, in an 8-0 opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affirmed, ruling that the speedy trial clause of the Sixth Amendment attaches when a defendant is arrested or formally accused, but then “detaches upon conviction.”
The remedy for delayed sentencing lies elsewhere, the court said.
For now, Levenson told Bloomberg BNA, defendants had better look to Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(b)(1) and its state counterparts when requesting a timely sentencing hearing.
That rule calls on courts to issue sentences “without unnecessary delay.”
Up until the moment of conviction, an accused is presumed innocent and the speedy trial clause gives teeth to that presumption by making sure the accused doesn't suffer from lengthy incarceration and public opprobrium prior to trial, the court said.
But once the accused is convicted, those considerations are no longer in play, it ruled.
“As a measure protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right—like other similarly aimed measures—loses force upon conviction,” the court said.
The logic of the pre-conviction focus of the clause is clear from the fact that the sole remedy for a violation of the speedy trial right is dismissal of the charges, the court said.
“It would be an unjustified windfall, in most cases, to remedy sentencing delay by vacating validly obtained convictions,” it added.
This doesn't mean defendants are doomed to languish in jail after they've been convicted, the court said.
There are numerous protections in various statutes and rules and convicted defendants may have “other recourse” under the due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments, it said.
“After conviction, a defendant’s due process right to liberty, while diminished, is still present,” the court said.
At oral argument, the justices spent a lot of time pressing the lawyers to flesh out how a defendant would go about proving a due process violation, asking a flurry of questions about what yardstick courts might use to gauge prejudice and what remedies would be appropriate (98 CrL 615, 3/30/16).
The majority ultimately left resolution of those points for another day, but two concurring opinions took the opportunity to more directly address the issue.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested the four-part test for speedy trial violations laid out in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), would be a good fit, but Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurrence joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., expressed reservations about adopting the Barker test for speedy sentencing claims.
Fred A. Rowley Jr., of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, Los Angeles, argued for Betterman. Montana Solicitor General Dale Schowengerdt, Helena, Mont., argued for the state.
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