U.S. Supreme Court Says Sixth Amendment Does Not Guarantee Speedy Sentencing

As we have talked about recently on this blog, the right to a fair trial is one of the cornerstones of the American criminal justice system. Of course, amidst local and national concerns of false testimony by law enforcement and apparent flaws in forensic evidence processing, many wonder if a fair trial is an impossible ideal.

Be that as it may, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” This means that a defendant has the right not only to a fair, public trial, but also a speedy one. The United States Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial does not extend to the sentencing phase once a defendant has been convicted.

Betterman v. Montana

The case before the high court essentially began with a guilty plea by a man in Montana for skipping bail in 2012 and failing to appear on charges for domestic assault. The man then waited in prison for more than 14 months for his sentence to be determined, much of the wait blamed on institutional delays by the court. The man was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison, with four of the years suspended. He appealed his sentence on the basis that the 14-month delay violated his Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial.

The Court’s Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the Montana Supreme Court that the Sixth Amendment does not apply once a defendant has been convicted. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion of the court, stating that the Sixth Amendment is intended to protect the rights of the accused, not the convicted. The right to a speedy trial is meant to alleviate the pressures of being publicly charged with a crime—and presumed innocent until proven otherwise—and that is in the best interest of everyone involved to move quickly to determine guilt. The court held that once guilt has been established, the Sixth Amendment no longer applies. In addition, the only available remedy available for violating a person’s right to a speedy trial is a dismissal of the charges. Such a remedy, Justice Ginsburg wrote, would not be in the interest of justice following a conviction.

Narrow Ruling

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, a defendant who has been convicted is not totally without rights. The court expressly acknowledged that its ruling is limited to challenges based on the Sixth Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor each wrote a concurring opinion suggesting that delays in sentencing may be better addressed by challenges based on the rights to due process guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Justice Thomas wrote, “We have never decided whether the Due Process Clause creates an entitlement to a reasonably prompt sentencing hearing.” In agreement, Justice Sotomayor said, “I write separately to emphasize that the question is an open one.” Regarding the case at hand, the original defendant’s counsel clearly stated they were not advancing a claim regarding the Due Process Clause, so the court issued no opinion on the matter.

Experienced Criminal Defense Assistance

If you have been charged with a crime, you need a lawyer who will fight to protect your rights at every stage of the process. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in Will County to discuss your case and to learn more about your available options. Call 815-740-4025 today for a free consultation at the Law Offices of Jack L. Zaremba.

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