Part 7: COVID-19 and Speedy Trials
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
With the COVID-19 issue what happens when your criminal case is pending? Can you get your case dismissed if it has been pending for too long? What is a speedy trial?
In a normal world without COVID-19, a defendant has a right to a speedy trial. Despite the name of "speedy" trial, the reality is that the court system does not work that fast. The speedy trial rights are governed by Mass criminal law procedure rule 36.
The rule states that the "defendants arraigned prior to the effective date of these rules shall be tried within twenty-four months after such effective date." So under the rule the prosecutor essentially has 24 months to bring a person to trial after arraignment.
Well how does the Corona virus affect a person who has a pending criminal case? There are a lot of things that do not count towards the time limit. Such as delay for mental health examination of the defendant, delays for interlocutory appeals, delay for hearings or pre-trial motions just to name a few.
The rule itself was trying to prevent a person to be perpetually prosecuted with no time limit for the rest person's life. The courts find it especially important when a person is in jail awaiting trial. During the Corona virus courts have been closed and many defendant's cases are stalled.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Supreme Judicial Court has passed many standing orders to deal with the court's scheduling. The SJC has included that the court's being closed for COVID-19 issues are not subject to rule 36 restrictions. Meaning the SJC does believe that COVID-19 delays to a criminal case are for good cause.
With those SJC standing orders in mind, it seems as though the court is unlikely to dismiss any cases due to any COVID-19 related delays. Despite the SJC orders, defendants should continue filing speedy trial requests, object to any court delays, and demand jury trials. It is very important that defendants continue to create a record of requesting a speedy trial if they want to have any future claims of illegal delays. This is especially important for defendants in jail.
During these uncertain times and unprecedented times, the courts may not be the government's first priority. However, no matter the crisis, constitutional rights are paramount to every society and our identity as Americans.