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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a speedy trial?

Under the United States Constitution, the accused in all criminal cases has the right to a speedy trial. The general concept is easy enough to understand, but the particular details of what this means can be difficult to pin down.

In general, the speedy trial guarantee means that the accused must be brought to trial or released within a reasonable amount of time. The government is not legally permitted to lock people up indefinitely without trying them.

What specifically constitutes a "reasonable" timeframe is a matter of debate, litigation, and legislation. There is not just a simple, firm time limit for what is considered reasonable and then anything after that is considered unreasonable. Rather, the current legal framework for what constitutes a "speedy" trial consists of precedent set by the Supreme Court as well as statutory federal and state law.

In Barker v. Wingo (1972), the United States Supreme Court held that under the Constitution:

"A defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial cannot be established by any inflexible rule, but can be determined only on an ad hoc balancing basis in which the conduct of the prosecution and that of the defendant are weighed."

With that opinion, the Court established a four-part test in which courts are left to assess this right on a case-by-case basis, weighing:

  • the length of the delay
  • the reason for the delay,
  • whether or not the defendant asserted their right to a speedy trial, and
  • prejudice to the defendant

This leaves the situation quite nebulous and is particularly unsatisfying to people whose understanding of rights is that they are not something that ought to be left to the whims of government officials to determine as they like. However, the Supreme Court provides only a baseline for determining speedy trial violations, with federal and state legislators allowed to provide additional protections above it. Indeed, there are additional boundaries to the concept of a speedy trial in federal and state laws.

With respect to federal trials, the Speedy Trial Act provides additional definition. 18 U.S. Code § 3161 generally allows 30 days from the time someone is arrested or served with a summons for their arrest for the federal government to charge them with a crime and, if they plead not guilty, an additional 70 days beyond that or beyond the date the defendant has appeared before a judicial officer of the court in which such charge is pending (whichever is later) for a trial against them to commence. It further specifies extensive details applying to other scenarios, circumstance with allow for permissible modifications of these time limits in this scenario, and more.

Additionally, many states impose similar numerically-defined limits on various stages of the process from arrest to trial as well as details such as what time does and does not count toward those limits, etc. To learn more about a particular state's speedy trial deadlines, visit our Jury Health Project. If you do not see your state's data yet, check back again as we are adding more data on a regular basis.

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