Your Right To A Speedy Trial (Probably Isn’t What You Expect)

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that, if you've been arrested and charged with a crime, you're guaranteed the right to a speedy trial. 

But, what exactly does that mean? Why do some trials take months or years to happen? Is a speedy trial even in your best interests? Here are some answers to your questions that might help you know what to expect after being charged.

1. The definition of "speedy" varies according to the jurisdiction you are in.

In some jurisdictions, speedy can be a matter of a few weeks, but don't be surprised if you're waiting 60 to 120 days to get to trial—and that's assuming that you don't ultimately waive your right to that speedy trial along the way.

2. The clock on your speedy trial stops and starts quite often.

The imaginary clock that's tracking how long it takes you to get to a speedy trial is more like a stopwatch. It's constantly being stopped and started again. There are frequent events in a criminal proceeding that do not count against your guaranteed right to speed, including:

  • Any time during which you are unavailable for some reason (for example, because you had surgery and need time to recover)
  • Any time you are between attorneys (if, for example, your attorney has a medical crisis and you're forced to find a new one)
  • Ordinary delays caused by motions from either the prosecution or defense (often to do with an attorney's need to acquire or review evidence)
  • Adjournments for any other circumstance that are made with your permission (because you can't claim your rights were violated if you consented to it)

Despite these common interruptions, there are times when a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights can and do get violated. If that happens, your defense attorney will likely argue that your case should be dismissed because of the excessive delays.

3. You may not want your trial to take place too quickly, anyhow.

You don't want your attorney to walk into court unprepared, do you? Prosecutors generally have much more information at the start of a case than defense attorneys do, and it takes time for that information to trade hands. It also takes time for your defense attorney to look for additional evidence that the prosecution may have missed, interview potential defense witnesses, and determine the best defense strategy for your particular case.

Plus, if your case has attracted any kind of negative media attention, judges may be sensitive to their public image. That could cause a judge to unconsciously treat you more harshly than necessary—which is always wise to avoid. By letting your trial wait, you allow public interest to move on to something else when it's not in your favor to stay in the media's eye.

If you've been charged with a crime, talk over your options for trial with a professional criminal defense lawyer. He or she can help you decide the best tactics to take.