The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that every person accused of a crime has the right to a “speedy and public trial.” This same right extends to state-level prosecutions for criminal offenses such as DWI. But what does a “speedy” trial actually mean? Can you get your DWI case dismissed if the state fails to bring your case to trial by a specific deadline?
In 1972, the United State Supreme Court issued a decision, Barker v. Wingo, which set out four factors that trial courts must consider when determining if a Sixth Amendment violation of the speedy trial right occurred. In brief, those four factors are:
- the length of the delay;
- the reasons for the delay;
- the time at which the accused asserted the right to a speedy trial; and
- the prejudice, if any, suffered by the defendant due to the delay.
Following the Barker decision, Congress adopted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, which established firm time limits to bring a case to trial. Typically, a defendant must be brought to trial within 70 days of being formally charged (by indictment or information) with a crime, or 70 days from the date the defendant first appeared in court, whichever is later.
But the Speedy Trial Act only covers federal criminal proceedings. It does not apply to state-level criminal prosecutions in Texas. And the Texas legislature has never adopted a statute requiring a defendant be brought to trial within a certain time period. It is therefore left to individual judges to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the state has waited too long to bring a defendant to trial based on the four Barker factors.
Weighing the Four Factors
You might think courts never find a Sixth Amendment violation in deference to prosecutors. But that is not so. Indeed, a Texas appeals court recently upheld the dismissal of a DWI case due a speedy trial violation.
In this case, State v. Voss, police arrested the defendant on suspicion of DWI in March 2022. Five months later, in August 2022, the district attorney filed a criminal information. Several more months passed until in March 2023–a year after his arrest–the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial in writing. In May 2023, the trial court held a hearing and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds.
The state appealed that decision. But the Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s ruling. In examining each of the four Barker factors, the Court of Appeals made the following conclusions:
- Length of the Delay: The Court of Appeals said that a delay of 8 months or more is generally assumed to be “prejudicial” to the defendant and thus justified a speedy trial analysis. Here, the state conceded that the delay exceeded the 8-month threshold.
- Reasons for the Delay: There was no single reason given for the delay in bringing the defendant’s DWI case to trial. The trial court said there had been “administrative problems” with the local county clerk in handling cases. There was also the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted all in-person trials before the court until October 2022, seven months after the defendant’s arrest. Again, the state acknowledged this was a problem.
- The Defendant’s Assertion of His Rights: As previously noted, the defendant filed a written assertion of his right to a speedy trial. And the Court of Appeals noted there was “nothing in the record to indicate [the defendant] did not want a speedy trial.
- The Prejudice Due to the Delay: Before the trial court, the defendant testified the ongoing delay in trying his case “caused him stress, anxiety, and loss of sleep.” While such anxiety was not “sufficient proof of prejudice under Barker,” the appellate court noted, the weight of the other three factors were enough to overcome the relative lack of prejudice.
Contact Houston DWI Lawyer Tad Nelson Today
The key to raising a speedy trial claim is to assert the right as early as possible in a criminal proceeding. You need to demand a speedy trial in writing. Do not assume that the district attorney or the trial court will go out of their way to schedule a quick trial.
Ensuring you receive a prompt and fair trial is also one reason you should work with a qualified Houston DWI defense attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today to schedule a free case evaluation.