What Does the Right to A Speedy Trial Really Mean?

The United States Constitution has enshrined important protections for criminal defendants in Iowa and throughout the country. These protections include the right to an attorney representative in most situations, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and the right to remain silent.

Criminal defendants also have the right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. Although this right makes clear that defendants cannot be left to languish for years in the judicial system, the Constitution does not make clear exactly what a “speedy trial” is. Instead, courts (and lawmakers) have been relied upon to make this determination, and their interpretations have not always been what you might expect.

Getting A Speedy Trial in Cedar Rapids

Whether a criminal defendant’s case is brought to trial in a speedy manner is relative. Courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment to require that the time between arrest and a trial be “reasonable.” What reasonable means often depends on the circumstances of the case itself.

In considering the reasonableness of the time to trial, courts look to three main factors:

  • The length of the delay
  • The reason for the delay
  • Whether the defendant previously asserted the right to a speedy trial
  • Whether the delay prejudiced the defense

The length of the delay in a case is easier to justify where the charges are serious. For example, a trial can be delayed for a longer period of time where murder is involved as compared to shoplifting. Where there is a genuine reason for the delay, such as the need to find a crucial witness, a court is also more likely to accept a delay.

Defendants who want to protect their right to a speedy trial can best do so if they assert the right early and often, rather than waiting until late in the process to make the argument. It also helps if they can show that they have been unduly prejudiced by the delays they experienced.

Some courts have held that where the delay between arrest and trial approaches the one year mark, it suggests a possible constitutional violation. But no court has gone so far to draw a hard line on time frames, and courts have approved waits of 16 months or more where there was apparent justification for such waits.

Criminal defendants should be aware that the clock on their time to a speedy trial usually begins when charges are handed down or an indictment is filed, which is not always the same as when the defendant is arrested. Likewise, its possible that you could be involved in a prolonged investigation before there are formal charges, and that investigation time does not count toward the speedy trial clock.

If a court does find your delay unreasonable, the consequence can be significant, as it can mean the complete dismissal of the charges against you.

Iowa’s Speedy Trial Protections

Although courts provide much of the guidance on what you need to have a speedy trial, states have also stepped in to provide guidance to law enforcement and the courts on what must happen to protect a criminal defendant’s rights. In Iowa, there are two different laws that help to protect criminal defendants from languishing in the criminal justice system.

First, Iowa law requires that anyone charged with any crime from a serious misdemeanor to a felony has the right to a speedy indictment. This means that if the state intends to file an indictment against a criminal defendant (also known as a “trial information” in Iowa) they must do so within 45 days after arrest. If no indictment is filed within that time, any pending charges against the defendant must be dismissed unless the state can provide “good cause shown” for the delay.

Second, after an indictment is filed, Iowa law requires that a defendant is brought to trial within 90 days.  If the trial does not occur within 90 days, the court must dismiss the charges unless the defendant affirmatively waives the right to a speedy trial or there is good cause for the delay.

However, defendants cannot intentionally, or even unintentionally, cause their own delays to their trial such that the speedy trial deadline is violated. Where time to trial is delayed because a defendant files numerous motions, obstructs the gathering of evidence, or for any other reason, this will not count against the 90-day speedy trial deadline—those delays stop the clock for those periods of time.

Finally, in Iowa, even if a defendant waives his or her right to a speedy trial, all trials must be brought within one year of when the defendant is arraigned by the court. Again, the state may only circumvent this deadline for good cause shown.

Iowa Attorneys Protecting the Rights of Defendants

The right to a speedy trial serves several important purposes. First, requiring a speedy trial helps to ensure that a defendant does not have to spend an unreasonable amount of time in jail while awaiting charges, particularly when posting a bond is not possible.

It also helps to respect and protect the mental health of the defendant by making sure that the defendant is not kept in suspense or anxiety over pending criminal charges for months or years at a time. Courts recognize that this is neither healthy nor fair.

Finally, the right to a speedy trial protects a defendant’s ability to gather evidence for his or her own defense. Over time, physical evidence can become harder and harder to locate, and witnesses may move, lose their memories of an event, or even pass away. The longer a trial is delayed, the more difficult it can be for a defendant to obtain and present persuasive evidence in his or her defense. A speedy trial protects against this type of prejudice.

An experienced criminal law attorney like Jonathan D. Schmidt can help you to stay on top of your pending deadlines in criminal court, and make sure that the State is abiding by both the statutory and constitutional requirements that it gives you a speedy trial. For more information or to schedule an initial consultation, contact us online or at (319) 423-3031.