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Trials Must Be Speedy, Sentencings Not So Much

By: Douglas E. Roberts
June 01, 2016

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “right to a speedy and public trial” to those accused in criminal proceedings.  Federal and state courts have long grappled with the question whether speedy trial rights protect defendants from inordinate delays in sentencing.  Recently, in Betterman v. Montana, Case No. 14-1457, the U.S. Supreme Court answered that question in the negative.

The Trial in “Speedy Trial” Means Trial (or Plea)

Brandon Betterman pleaded guilty to bail-jumping in Montana state court and was held in county detention for fourteen months between the entry of his plea and sentencing date, largely because of institutional issues and through no fault of his.  Although Betterman was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, with four of those years suspended, he argued that the fourteen-month delay offended his Sixth Amendment rights because, had he been sentenced in a timely fashion, he could have been eligible for conditional release through the state prison system’s procedures.

But the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the Sixth Amendment guarantee to a speedy trial cuts off at, well, trial, or the defendant’s entry of a guilty plea.  It does not govern post-conviction or pre-sentencing delays.

If the result was not a surprise, the 8-0 final score was. At oral argument, some Justices seemed supportive of Betterman’s argument that the Court should apply the balancing test it uses in evaluating pre-trial delays to the sentencing context.  That test, which the Court announced in Barker v. Wingo more than four decades ago, considers the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, the prejudice that the delay imposed on the defendant, and the manner in which the defendant has asserted his right.  Regarding the application of the test post-conviction, Justice Kagan said, “I guess I just wouldn’t see why there’s any need for a different rule, especially given the level of flexibility that Barker gives.” Apparently, it is not flexible enough to stretch past the point of conviction.

What Could Have Been?

The majority of states and the federal courts were operating as though the Sixth Amendment had nothing to say about sentencing delays, so Betterman will mostly preserve the status quo.  In most jurisdictions in the federal system, local rules require (or local practices compel) the court to set a sentencing date a certain number of days – typically 90 or 120 – from the entry of a guilty plea or a guilty verdict at trial.  But in some jurisdictions, sentencing is not set until the U.S. Probation Office completes the defendant’s presentence report – a practice that can drag on for months if the Court does not impose deadlines.  In the Western District of North Carolina, for instance, defendants can wait a year or more between entry of plea (or loss at trial) and sentencing. And that timeframe can expand for defendants involved in complex fraud cases or expansive conspiracies.  A contrary outcome in Betterman could have put an end to such systematic delay.

Lengthy lapses between findings of guilt and sentencings have the most profound effect on defendants who are detained pending the resolution of their cases. For every day they are not sentenced (and thus not designated to the agency that administers their punishment), those individuals face time in county facilities, which generally have far fewer resources than federal or even state prisons. The result is typically poorer medical care, less or non-existent programming, and little if any recreation.

But delay can negatively impact even defendants on bond pending sentencing as well.  It elongates a stressful period – often the most stressful period in one’s life; it forestalls closure. And, where a sentence of imprisonment is possible or likely, an uncertain sentencing date, or a sentencing date subject to continuance because of institutional delay, makes it difficult to finalize the arrangements of one’s affairs.

And, for all defendants, an extended delay in sentencing can complicate presenting a case for mitigation. In the federal system and in many states, sentencing courts consider a defendant’s history and characteristics and the circumstances surrounding the offense in fashioning a punishment. As time passes, recollections fade, and it can become more difficult to locate witnesses that could provide the court with information supporting a favorable outcome.

To be sure, a defendant can find ways to use the delay in sentencing to his advantage – by engaging in conduct that demonstrates rehabilitation or that the offense he committed was uncharacteristic. But, for most, the negative impact of delay overwhelms the positives that can be drawn from it.  Thus, courts and legislatures should endeavor to provide speedy sentencing, even if the Sixth Amendment does not.

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