The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that those accused in all criminal prosecutions have the right to a speedy trial. The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 establishes time limits for completion of various stages of federal criminal prosecution, or else face possible dismissal.
A significant delay in a speedy trial must be carefully weighed under the parameters set forth in the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Barker v. Wingo, in which the court must consider the length of the delay, the cause of it, the defense assertion of the right to a speedy trial and the absence or presence of prejudice that results from delay.
In the recent case of Batts v. Alabama, a trial court's five-year delay in a drug trafficking case was reportedly not weighed against the Barker standards. For this reason, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals sent the matter back to the trial court for a thorough explanation of the facts as applied to the Barker standards before deciding how to address defendant's appeal.
The findings could be a significant break for defendants, who was previously sentenced to life in prison for drug crime convictions.
According to court records, defendant was arrested for allegedly trafficking cocaine when he flew from Texas to Huntsville with nearly four pounds of cocaine. He was arrested after a brief chase with deputies, which resulted in $2,500 damage to a police cruiser. He was charged with trafficking in cocaine and first-degree criminal mischief.
But that was in February 2009. The case didn't actually go to trial until August 2014 – more than five years later. Birmingham criminal defense lawyers recognize that on the surface, this clearly violates defendant's right to speedy trial. Court records show defendant filed a motion for a speedy trial in May 2009. Then in April 2013, he filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him on grounds his right to a speedy trial, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and affirmed under Barker, had been violated.
Trial court held a hearing on defendant's motion. During that hearing, the judge stated he was “somewhat familiar with case law on the issue. Yet the judge stated this particular case was not one that should be granted dismissal due to lack of a speedy trial.
The trial was held as scheduled, and defendant sentenced as a habitual felony offender to life in prison on the trafficking charge and 25 years in prison on the criminal mischief charge.
On appeal, defendant argued trial court erred by failing to consider the Barker factors as applicable to his case. The Alabama appellate court agreed.
There is nothing in the record to indicate the court weighed each of the factors as required by the decision in Barker. In fact, the court's only reasoning given was the judge was “somewhat familiar” with prior case law and that this case simply wasn't eligible for dismissal on that basis. There was no explanation of why or examination of the Barker factors.
Because of this, appellate court was unable to determine whether trial court considered those factors and remanded the case back to the trial court to make written findings of fact that consider each element of Barker as it relates to this case. The court was granted authority to hold additional hearings for evidence and arguments, and was asked to respond to the order within 35 days.
Batts v. Alabama, Dec. 19, 2014, Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals