A defendant has a constitutional right to a speedy trial, meaning that once the state commences a criminal prosecution the defendant can demand trial within a reasonable time. Speedy trial rights usually start with the arrest and detention of a suspect, or with the formal initiation of charges against a defendant. If a timely trial cannot be held, the charge against the defendant may become subject to dismissal.
Speedy trial rights may arise by statute, through a state constitution or under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The reasons for giving defendants speedy trial rights include the potential for harm to a defendant's ability to defend against the charge, concerns about lengthy pretrial detention, and the anxiety and community suspicion that may fall upon a defendant who is awaiting trial.
For statutory speedy trial rights, the consequences of a statutory speedy trial violation may be defined within the statute. However, states may not reduce a defendant's rights under the U.S. Constitution, and a violation of a defendant's constitutional speedy trial rights will result in the defendant's dismissal being set aside and the dismissal of the charge. That is to say, a state may offer a defendant greater speedy trial rights than are required by the U.S. Constitution, but may not reduce those rights.
Within that limit, speedy trial rules may vary depending upon factors including the nature of the charge, whether or not the defendant has posted bond or is in pretrial detention.
When evaluating whether a constitutional speedy trial violation has occurred, a court will consider:
The length of the delay -- the amount of time that passed between the commencement of the prosecution and the trial date. If the defense has requested or agreed to an adjournment, that portion of the delay is not considered when making the determination of whether the defendant's rights were violated.
The reasons for the delay -- the delay of a criminal trial may occur for a number of reasons, some of which are attributable to the defense, prosecution, court, or to other factors outside of anybody's control.
The defendant's demand for a speedy trial -- if the defendant has not requested a speedy trial and did not object to the delay prior to trial, the court may factor the defendant's failure to assert speedy trial rights when assessing whether the defendant's rights were violated.
Prejudice to the Defense -- the court may evaluate whether the delay caused any material harm to the defendant's ability to prepare and present a defense, such as through the loss of evidence or the unavailability of witnesses that would have been available but for the delay.
State statutes may provide more rigid speedy trial rules, particularly for minor offenses and traffic offenses. For example, a state might provide that a traffic court matter is subject to dismissal if a hearing is not scheduled within 45 days, unless the defense has requested an adjournment.
Although most constitutional rights cannot be waived, speedy trial rights are subject to waiver. A defendant's failure to assert a speedy trial right may be considered in association with a subsequent claim that the right was violated, as may any benefit that the defendant received as a result of the delay.
In some jurisdictions, the assertion of a speedy trial may result in the case being quickly scheduled for trial, and a defendant may feel compelled to waive the right to a speedy trial in order to get sufficient time to prepare a defense. If a defendant demands a speedy trial, the defendant cannot later claim that he did not have time to prepare his defense. However, if a defendant demands a speedy trial and the prosecutor is not prepared to proceed to trial, there is a possibility that charges against the defendant could be dismissed.