Speedy Trials in Wake County, North Carolina? Not so much

The United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a speedy trial. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial…

The Supreme Court has held that this right to a Speedy Trial applies not just in the federal courts, but in state courts as well.

The problem is that while there is a federal Speedy Trial Act that applies to federal courts, North Carolina does not have its own speedy trial law.

As a consequence, the procedural rights that a defendant has in North Carolina’s state courts to a speedy trial are constitutional rights, not statutory rights.

And because the Supreme Court has consistently refused to impose strict limitations on either the federal or state governments to have a speedy trial, defendants can await trial for years in North Carolina’s state courts.

Part of the reason is that some delays may be for the benefit of the defense. For instance, the defendant may request continuances or delays so that the defendant (or, more likely, his criminal lawyer) has time to prepare for trial. In complicated cases, where experts need to evaluate evidence or interview the defendant for psychological examinations, the delays may be inevitable.

The Supreme Court, in Barker v. Wingo (1972), laid out a four-part test for determining whether the defendant’s Constitutional rights to a speedy trial had been violated.

  1. Length of Delay: A delay of a year or more from the date on which the speedy trial right “attaches” (the date of arrest or indictment, whichever first occurs) was termed “presumptively prejudicial”, but the Court has never explicitly ruled that any absolute time limit applies.
  2. Reason for the delay: The prosecution may not excessively delay the trial for its own advantage, but a trial may be delayed to secure the presence of an absent witness or other practical considerations.
  3. Time and manner in which the defendant has asserted his right: If a defendant agrees to the delay when it works to his own benefit, he cannot later claim that he has been unduly delayed.
  4. Degree of prejudice to the defendant which the delay has caused.

An additional problem in Wake County is when the defendant is held in custody during the entire pre-trial period. If no bail can be arranged that the defendant can make, the defendant may find himself or herself waiting in Wake County’s jails for trial. The mental and physical toll that can take can be unpleasant.

In the end, if the defendant has been in jail long enough waiting trial, he may find himself much more willing to take a plea that is actually not a very good plea deal, just to get out of jail. If the plea deal involves state prison time, he may prefer to go to state prison, where, I’m told, the food is better and the privileges to go outside are more likely. If the plea deal amounts to “time served,” he may get out of jail after accepting the plea merely with the conviction in his record.

The result of all this is that the lack of a speedy trial statute in North Carolina makes it much more important to get an attorney involved in your case as early as possible so that you can, if at all possible, get bail conditions set that enable you to spend the pre-trial period at home, working, with your family, and being productive.

If you or a friend or loved one is facing arrest or is in jail, and you don’t have a Raleigh criminal lawyer, call (919) 352-9411 and I can talk to you about strategies that might enable a pre-trial release or favorable bond conditions.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.