Speedy Trial

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The News and Observer ran a story recently — available here — about the length of time it takes to resolve murder cases in North Carolina. The average time to disposition was 528 days last year. That figure includes cases resolved by plea or dismissal, suggesting that the average time to trial is probably longer. The story included a thoughtful Q&A with Jim Cooney and Colon Willoughby, who identified factors such as the large number of cases that are declared potentially capital at a Rule 24 hearing, the volume of discovery that’s common in murder cases, and the difficulty of coordinating schedules to set trial dates, especially in multi-defendant trials.

One factor that wasn’t mentioned in the article is North Carolina’s lack of a speedy trial statute. Of course, North Carolina defendants have constitutional speedy trial rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. But those rights generally don’t “kick in” until a year has passed, at which point, courts apply a four-factor test to determine whether a defendant’s constitutional speedy trial rights have been compromised. See, e.g., State v. Washington, __ N.C. App. __ (2008) (listing factors and vacating a conviction after a delay of four years and nine months).

North Carolina’s lack of a statutory speedy trial scheme stands in contrast to, for example, the federal system, where 18 U.S.C. s. 3161(c)(1) requires that trial begin within 70 days of indictment, subject to certain exceptions and exclusions. The leading criminal law treatise indicates that “all but a few” states have speedy trial statutes. 4 Wayne R. LaFave et al., Criminal Procedure, s. 18.3(c) (2d ed. 1999). My anecdotal sense is that most of those statutes set time limits far shorter than one year, i.e., that most of the statutes are more protective of a defendant’s speedy trial right than is the Constitution.

Interestingly, North Carolina used to have a speedy trial statute. Former G.S. 15A-701 et seq., the Speedy Trial Act, “required that the defendant be tried within 120 days of the date the defendant was arrested, served with criminal process, waived indictment or was indicted, whichever occurred last, unless that time was extended by certain specified events.” State v. Willis, 332 N.C. 151, 162 (1992). However, the Speedy Trial Act was repealed in 1989. I don’t know why that was done, and since the General Assembly doesn’t record floor debates and usually provides very limited records of committee hearings, I doubt that there’s an official record explaining the reason for the repeal. If I’m wrong about that, please let me know — and if anyone can remember the scuttlebutt about the repeal from 1989, please chime in about why it happened.

Obviously, a speedy trial statute wouldn’t be a panacea for delays, some of which are inevitable, and perhaps desirable, in complex cases. Further, if Mr. Willoughby is correct that most delays come from the defense side, giving the defendant a speedy trial right wouldn’t address the root of the concern. (But some speedy trial statutes bind both sides.) In any case, it’s at least worth considering whether the absence of such a statute contributes to delays. Thoughts? Opinions? Comments?

Update: The United States Supreme Court just decided a speedy trial case, Vermont v. Brillon, available here.  The gist of the case is that delays sought by court-appointed counsel are normally attributable to the defendant — because that is who counsel represents — not to the state.

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11 comments on “Speedy Trial

  1. The continuances should come from the defense. I would hope that no prosecutor would ever indict without have done a thorough and complete investigation. It is then the defense’s turn to start preparing and that is when it is discovered that more needs to be done, hence the requests for more time.

    • No it is not coming from the defense side in Lincolnton NC. Absolutely no criticism of the sheriff and the homeland security fear tactics will be tolerated either. The accused are treated like convicted criminals, jobs are lost, lives ruined. This is my first and last contact with the way Lincoln county goverment is handled. My daughter has waited for almost two years, for a crime she did not participate in, yet we have paid money to the IRS in the thousands for her to keep her car. Many court dates and “roll calls”have come and gone. I posted a comment to an online newspaper and was called by a deputy to remove it, how did he have my unlisted telephone number? I refused the deputy removed it himself,how? What rights are left and do we have any in Lincoln county NC?? Carpenter and his uneducated mob squad need to go. They want to be Marines, let them join the service.

  2. Well Im lost because I was arrested in 10/2007 for Trafficing and Maintaining a dwelling but never been in front of a judge. It was a bogus charge and I told them I was going to sue I guess that’s why I can’t obtain any information. I have been researching for statues of limitations for North Carolina, and if i believe im correct there isn’t any here in NC. Not sure what step to take for I was appointed a Public Defender however we have never been indicted and he says he never recieved any information on the case, it is going on three years to the date of the arrest. No government officials can offer any information to me. What can I do? Im afraid this arrest may affect my career as well as job offers? I lost a $40k job over these bogus charges and I want my life back.

  3. I disagree with the notion that cases are continued past the 120 day mark solely on the defendant’s continued motion(s). Assistant District Attorneys are not the least bit shy about asking for continuance after continuance because (i) there is no time on the docket to hear a trial; (ii) the officer is not present in court (although the court date is specifically scheduled on his “court date”); (iii) there is no translator available — even though preparing the courtroom for trial is supposedly the duty of the District Attorney; (iv) the officer needs to be subpeoned because he doesn’t have a “regular court date”.

    • It is the jr district attorneys, I am watching and taking notes, Fifty years in Lincolnton and I have NEVER seen the wool pulled over the people’s eyes like this sheriff and the DA are doing. We do not have the amendment in NC like other states do to insure the right to trial with in so many days, they are afraid of lawsuits against the county and well they should be. Two years, three years it is not important, they are on a power trip of botched cases and trying to make demi gods out of these people. I am tired , I want to sell my house and move, away from Lincoln county anywhere but Lincoln county. We have no protection as the sheriff has harassed us with his “men” protocol and the law has not been followed.If someone committed a crime here who would we call? There is no one to call , when the people who harass are the people who are suppose to protect.

  4. Actually, North Carolina does have a speedy trial statute. It can be found at Chapter 15-10.

    • WHERE CAN I FIND THE CHAPTER 15-10 CAUSE I NEED TO KNOW FOR SURE THAT NORTH CAROLINA HAS A SPEEDY TRAIL STATUTE. THANKS

      • Where can I find chapter 15-10 about speedy trials in nc

        • It is my understanding since reading all I can find , the NC law was done away with in 1989, would you post it if it is not true?

  5. I have been researching this law and would like to know how to address Richmond County’s DA office. My son has been held in Rockingham NC, since Oct 8, 2009. He was charged with capital murder, later reduced to kidnapping. We have gone to court two times. He was held for 4 months prior to the first court appearance. The second appearance was an administrative hearing that we did not have to attend, that was in Feb. 2012. At the time I was traveling 1:45 min to see my son weekly or to attend court. In Dec. 2013, my son requested to be transferred to a Central prison in Raleigh to be able to go outside, before that, he had not been outside at all. He is now at Central Prison in Raleigh, but does not have the same rights because he is just being held until trial. He has two attorneys, one appt and one I’m paying 30,000.00 to handle this case. Nothing is being done. Who can help me, who do I contact. He does not even have a court date. This is ridiculous and inhumane. Is there anything that I can do to speed this up.please advise

  6. Brunswick County, NC here. We need to join – together and coherently – to protect citizen’s right to a speedy trial. Any suggestions? 910-789-4457

    Brunswick County uses the threat of time on awaiting trial inmates to force them into pleaing so they have their conviction rate – is the going opinion. At best they are grossly incompetent or negligent. Months??!! No. Try years awaiting trial. And 2 inmates have committed suicide in the last 60 days in Brunswick County Detention Center. Bolivia, NC

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