Washington Law Review


The Not So Speedy Trial Act

October 01, 2014 | 89 Wash. L. Rev. 709

The Speedy Trial Act (STA) of 1974 occupies a peculiar place in the criminal justice system. Very few pieces of legislation can lay claim to protecting both the rights of criminal defendants and the public’s significant interest in timely justice, while reducing the cost of judicial administration. The STA formerly accomplished these lofty aims by reducing pretrial delays. But for the past two decades legal scholars have ignored the STA, and both prosecutors and defense attorneys have subverted the STA’s goals by routinely moving for continuances. And although the Act categorically applies in every federal criminal case, it has been effectively marginalized by federal district and circuit courts. The reason this happens is simple: no actor in the criminal justice system has an incentive to follow it. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike rely on delays in the system; and overburdened district courts, which have opposed the STA since its inception, have failed to enforce it as written. Appellate courts, too, prefer to thwart the STA’s requirements rather than reverse a conviction obtained by otherwise constitutional means. The institutional inertia that pulls courts away from the STA’s commands has led to a predictable result: an increase in pretrial delays, the very ill that Congress intended to cure when it passed the Act. This Article highlights and examines the ways in which federal courts undermine the STA and details a number of open circuit court conflicts involving the Act. The Article then proposes a comprehensive, but non-Congressional, fix that prescribes how every actor in the criminal justice system can comply with the Act as Congress intended.

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