Speedy Trial Demands During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, courts across Minnesota and the nation have been dealing with an excess of court delays, cancellations, remote hearings, and continuances. The backlog of cases is gluttonous in some jurisdictions. For some defendants, waiting longer for their case to conclude is not that big of a deal. For others, especially those in custody, getting a speedy resolution is everything to their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Speedy trial demands during the COVID-19 pandemic have not been easy to accommodate. So, what happens if someone made a speedy trial demand, and it was not adhered to because of COVID?

Recently, in State v. Jackson, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed whether a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial was violated when his trial was held seventy-seven days after his initial speedy-trial demand was raised. At the time, in May of 2020, the Minnesota Supreme Court had a moratorium on jury trials because of the pandemic. As a result, trial calendars began to balloon in size, which caused delay after delay for some cases. After the defendant in Jackson was convicted, he appealed stating that his constitutional right to speedy trial was violated.

To evaluate whether a person’s right to a speedy trial was violated, Minnesota courts follow the Barker factors. These factors are: (1) length of delay; (2) reason for the delay; (3) the defendant’s assertion of their right to a speedy trial; and (4) the prejudice to the defendant. No one single factor is dispositive, rather they are assessed together under the totality of the circumstances. Minnesota adopted the Barker factors in State v. Windish and used those factors to analyze the Jackson case. Ultimately, the court in Jackson determined that seventy-seven days to bring him to trial did not endanger the values protected by speedy-trial rights. It was only seventeen days past the sixty-day speedy trial deadline; and that delay was because of a worldwide pandemic not seen for over one-hundred years.

Speedy trial demands can be popular in criminal cases. Often, when someone is in custody awaiting the next court date, they will demand a speedy hearing. In Minnesota, you can demand a speedy trial and the court is supposed to schedule your trial within sixty days of the demand. Both the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Section VI of the Minnesota Constitution provide the right to a speedy trial. However, as the Jackson case highlights, the sixty-day deadline is not absolute. Often cases may go beyond sixty days before a trial starts when someone demands a speedy trial. If the delay is significant, the reason for the delay is poor, and the defendant is prejudiced, then you may very well likely find yourself in a situation where your speedy trial rights are violated. Minor delays because of COVID are unlikely going to result in such a violation.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney and DWI attorney in Woodbury, Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Lawyer Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Woodbury MN; and DUI Attorney Minnesota.