In the United States, the two types of laws are known as criminal law and civil law. Civil law is intended to address behavior that causes injury to an individual or other private party through the use of lawsuits. Consequences for any parties that are found to be liable for such acts are generally monetary, but may also include court-ordered remedies such as injunctions or restraining orders. 

Criminal law is intended to address behavior that is considered to be an offense against society, the state, or the public, even if the victim of such behavior is an individual person. Someone convicted of a crime will be forced to pay fines, and they may also lose their freedom by being sentenced to jail or prison time. Those accused under criminal law may also lose other freedoms, such as the right to vote. 

Whether someone is being charged with a serious or a minor crime, the accused still has the right to a trial. The “speedy trial amendment,” or the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guarantees a defendant the right to a speedy trial in a criminal case. Many states also have speedy trial laws, which are state constitutional provisions or statutes guaranteeing the right to a speedy trial. 

A defendant may exercise their right to a speedy trial upon arrest, indictment, or other formal accusations. However, the exact definition of “speedy” as well as the benefits of demanding this right vary from state to state.

How Long Is a Speedy Trial? When Does Right to a Speedy Trial Begin?

A fast and speedy trial is generally intended to prevent the accused from being kept in jail for an extended amount of time without adjudication. As previously mentioned, a defendant’s right to a speedy trial will be defined by a state statute. This statute will specify the number of days or months that the prosecution has to bring the defendant to trial. 

In many jurisdictions, the prosecution generally has 60 to 120 days in which to bring an imprisoned defendant to trial. The exception to this would be if the defendant waives their right to a speedy trial. If the defendant is out of custody, the time period is generally extended.

It is important to note that following are not included in the calculation of speedy trial time:

  • Delays that are caused by motions, such as motions to review evidence, or extend the discovery period;
  • Adjournments with the consent of the defendant;
  • Time when the defendant is unavailable, or is without legal counsel; and
  • Other exceptional circumstances, such as acts of God that cause the Courts to close. For example, if there is a blizzard, and no one is able to safely make it to the Court, then the trial may be delayed until conditions are safe again.

Generally speaking, the overall speedy trial time frame is 70 days from the filing date of the indictment, unless waived. To reiterate, the right to a speedy trial begins at the time of the defendant’s arrest and when charges are filed. This begins the clock on when the government must get the case to trial. If the defendant has not been arrested or formally charged with any crime, the clock on getting a trial set has not begun.

What Can Happen If My Right to a Speedy Trial Is Denied? When Do I Have a Right to a Public Trial?

Denial of the right to a speedy trial generally occurs when the prosecution has waited too long to try the defendant in question. Determining whether a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated involves considering at least four factors:

  • The Length Of the Delay: According to Barker v. Wingo, length of delay should not extend past eight months. Once eight months have passed, courts will generally assume that the defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated;
  • Cause For the Delay: The court will consider the exact cause for the delay in trial. Some common examples of reasonable delays include:
    • Delays associated with lab tests
    • Overcrowded dockets, meaning longer wait times
    • Witnesses being unavailable

The court will also consider whether continuances have been requested, and by which party;

  • Asserting the Right: The defendant must assert their right to a speedy trial; the longer the wait to do so, the more likely it is that they will lose that right. An example of this would be if a defendant waits two years to assert their right, as opposed to a defendant who demands their right after eight months. It is important to note that when a defendant requests dismissal in place of a speedy trial is not truly asserting their right. Rather, they are attempting to avoid criminal liability based on the delay; and/or
  • Prejudice Against the Defendant: Finally, the court will consider whether the defendant was harmed in any way by a delay in trial caused by the prosecution. An example of this would be if any witnesses died or moved away over the course of the delay. They could no longer be reliable, which could reasonably harm the defendant and their right to a proper and fair trial.

In order to win their case for a violation of their rights, the defendant must prove that the factors weigh in their favor. The specific circumstances of each particular case are vital in determining whether the right to a speedy trial has been violated. Should the court determine that the defendant’s right to a speedy trial was violated, they will dismiss the prosecution with prejudice.

According to the Sixth Amendment, A criminal facing a felony charge or imprisonment also has the right to a “public trial.” What this means is that the general public and members of the media will be allowed to attend the defendant’s trial, unless the defendant waives this right. Trials are supposed to be public in order to ensure that the defendant’s rights are being protected, as well as keep the courtroom staff mindful of their responsibilities and duties owed to the defendant under the Constitution.

There are limited circumstances in which a judge may prohibit a public trial, and close the courtroom to the public. This is generally when there is a substantial danger to the public at large, or to protect the identities of the witnesses or defendants involved in the case. An example of this would be how a judge may close the courtroom from public and media during a rape trial when the victim is on the stand testifying. This is done in order to protect the victim’s identity and disclosure of their name to the public.

Do I Need a Lawyer Experienced in Criminal Law?

If you are facing prosecution for committing a crime, you will need to consult with an experienced and local criminal defense lawyer. An area attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s specific criminal laws, as well as your rights and legal options. 

Your attorney can determine whether your rights have been violated, such as the right to a speedy trial, and whether there are any defenses available to you based on the specifics of your case. Additionally, your attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.