Right to a Speedy Trial Ends at Guilty Verdict

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The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantee of speedy trial does not protect people convicted of crimes from lengthy sentencing delays. Brandon Betterman argued his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated when he spent fourteen months in jail waiting to be sentenced. Betterman pleaded guilty to jumping bail in the spring of 2012. It would be the summer of 2013 before a judge finally sentenced him to seven years in prison, with four years suspended.

In Betterman v. Montana, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, rejected Betterman’s argument. She said there is a difference between trials, which adjudicate guilt, and sentencings, which determine punishment. “As a measure protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right — like other similarly aimed measures — loses force upon conviction.”

The court said this reading of the Sixth Amendment is in line with the historical understanding of the protections of the right to a speedy trial. “The accused” is different from “the convicted” and extending the right to post-conviction procedures would change the nature of the right. The court said the manner in which legislatures and courts have interpreted this Sixth Amendment right, as well as the remedies available for a violation of the right, are also in line with the time-limited reading.

Betterman did not seek an outright dismissal of his case, but rather a reduction to his prison term. The court rejected the idea of “a flexible or tailored remedy” and said the violation of the right to a speedy trial “demands termination of the prosecution.” The required remedy would result in an unjustified windfall for defendants.

Justice Ginsburg said that the speedy trial analysis might be different in capital cases, in which the sentencing phase is often elaborate and crucial. The court also hinted at another way in which defendants could attack lengthy sentencing delays. Ginsburg said that sentencing proceedings must be fundamentally fair, so it is possible that such a delay could be attacked as a violation of due process. “But because Betterman advanced no due process claim here,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “we express no opinion on how he might fare under that more pliable standard.”

In a concurrence, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested using the Barker v. Wingo factors for a due process analysis. The majority of the Circuits use this test. The Barker factors include: the length of the delay; the governmental reasons for the delay; the defendant’s responsibility to assert his rights; and the prejudice to the defendant. In a second concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said that was premature.

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