Jefferson Memorial

How does the Covid-19 pandemic affect a defendant’s speedy trial rights in D.C.?

Jamison KoehlerCovid-19 pandemic, Criminal Procedure, D.C. Superior Court

By order of the D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge, most recently on August 13, 2020, all “statutory and rules-based time limits” are “suspended, tolled, or extended” until November 9, 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  This means that the time between the Chief Judge’s first order of March 18, 2020 and November 9, 2020 will not be counted in calculating the amount of time it has taken the government to bring a case to trial.  In other words, the defendant’s right to a speedy trial will be “tolled” during this time period.  

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a “speedy trial” to the defendant in a criminal case.  A violation of this right requires that the charges be dismissed with prejudice.  (“With prejudice” means that the government cannot reinstitute the charges later.) 

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to set bright-line rules with respect to when a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated.  Instead, it has left it up to each jurisdiction to set its own rules provided that these rules are consistent with the basic constitutional guarantee.  In Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), the Court identified four factors that should be considered in making this determination:  (1) the length of the delay, (2) reason for the delay, (3) defendant’s assertion of his rights, and (4) prejudice to the defendant. 

Consistent with this guidance, jurisdictions have each developed their own rules in order to protect this basic constitutional guarantee.  When I practiced in Philadelphia, for example, there were certain periods of time after which dismissal of the charges on the basis of a speedy trial violation would be presumed.  In this case, the burden was then on the government to show that the delay was somehow excusable.  The prosecution might show, for example, it was the court or the defendant, not the government, that caused the delay. 

The Philadelphia municipal courts were remarkably inefficient with many cases often delayed multiple times.  Speedy trial motions were thus an important weapon in the defense attorney’s arsenal for getting cases dismissed.

Speedy trial motions are rarely litigated in the District of Columbia.  Among other things, this is because D.C. Superior Court and the two prosecuting offices in the District are so much more efficient.  The Chief Judge’s most recent order will make these motions even harder to litigate when at least eight months – the period of time all deadlines will be “tolled” because of this “judicial emergency” – will not even be considered.