You probably already know that the US Constitution guarantees your right to a speedy trial, but what does that actually mean? Are your rights violated if you aren’t given a trial within a week? A month? A year? Well, the answer is a little complicated as it depends on the charges and whether you are incarcerated. In California, this right is enshrined under section 15 of the state constitution, but it is further detailed under Penal Code 1382 (PC). When your rights are violated under these sections of the law, your criminal defense attorney can file a Serna motion, arguing that you were denied your right to a speedy trial and, therefore, the charges against you should be dropped.
Speedy Trials Under California Law
You are guaranteed a jury trial reasonably soon after the filing of a criminal complaint, your arrest, the filing of an indictment, or after a holding order has been issued after a preliminary hearing. The criminal court process is complicated, so not all of these stages apply to all cases.
How Soon Should a Trial Occur for Misdemeanors?
For most misdemeanor cases, if the defendant is in custody, the trial must occur within 30 days of the arraignment or when they made their plea, whichever is later. If the defendant is not in custody, the deadline is extended to 45 days.
What are the Trial Deadlines for Felony Charges?
In California, unless someone facing a felony charge is indicted by a grand jury, they must attend a preliminary hearing where the prosecutor will be required to produce sufficient evidence to a judge to bind the defendant over for trial. The defendant, whether in or out of custody, has a right to a preliminary hearing within 10 court days of the initial arraignment unless good cause is shown to extend the time or the defendant waives the time limit.
An arraignment will occur immediately after the preliminary hearing, allowing you to answer to the charges brought up by the prosecution. Under 1382 (PC), a defendant has a right to a trial within 60 calendar days of this post-preliminary hearing arraignment, though this can be extended for good cause or a time waiver by the defense.
Cases involving grand juries follow a slightly different process as they bypass the preliminary hearing process. However, if the grand jury agrees there is sufficient evidence to warrant an indictment, an arraignment will still follow, and the trial should still take place within 60 days of the arraignment.
If you have any questions about the specific trial deadline in your case, be sure to ask your defense lawyer.
What are the Trial Deadlines for Federal Cases?
Under the federal speedy trial act, trials must start within 70 days of a filing of a complaint, arrest, indictment, or arraignment.
Are There Any Exceptions to Trial Deadlines?
Yes. These deadlines do not apply if a defendant fails to appear in court, waives their rights to a speedy trial, a new trial is ordered, a defendant is found incompetent to stand trial, or a writ is filed during this time.
What is a Serna Motion?
When a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated under 1382 (PC), their attorney may file what is known as a “Serna motion” under California law. A similar speedy trial motion can also be filed in federal courts, though the processes are slightly different in each level of court. If the judge agrees that your rights have been denied, the charges must be dismissed.
These motions are named after a 1985 California Supreme Court case where a defendant argued their right to a fair trial was violated by a four-year delay between the date of their arrest and the date of their trial.
So if Charges Aren’t Filed By the Deadline, I’m Free?
Like most things involving the justice system, it’s not that simple. As stated previously, your attorney will first need to file a Serna motion arguing that your right to a speedy trial was denied under the deadlines set forth by 1382 (PC). The judge will then talk to the prosecution and your lawyer to find out why the trial hasn’t taken place and how this has negatively affected you, the defendant. The judge cannot take into account the charges themselves, so whether the case is related to petty theft or murder, the process is the same.
What do Judges Consider When Ruling on Serna Motions?
Because both the state and national constitutions guarantee this right, your attorney may file a Serna motion on either grounds, but both have different standards. In cases where lawyers argue their client’s US Constitutional rights have been violated, the judge must rule whether or not a speedy trial violation occurred based on the following four factors:
- the reason for the delay
- the length of the delay
- the demand for a speedy trial by the defendant
- the prejudice to the defendant
In cases where attorneys argue there was a speedy trial violation of California state Constitutional rights, judges base their decision only on the following two factors:
- the prejudice suffered by the defendant
- the prosecution’s excuse for delaying the trial
The reason for the delay is of critical importance as some factors just can’t be helped. For example, if a defendant is hospitalized, the prosecution must wait until they are healthy enough to stand trial. Alternatively, if a local emergency shuts down all courts for a month, all trials will be postponed during this period, and many cases will suffer additional delays as the court attempts to address their backlog. The prosecution may also sometimes reasonably delay a case if new evidence is brought to light or if the case is too complex for a speedy trial. On the other hand, if prosecutors lost track of a case and failed to file charges, this would be less excusable.
Likewise, in both state and federal rights cases, the prejudice to the defendant is of the utmost importance. The “prejudice” doesn’t just refer to the defendant’s ability to have a fair trial, but also to how much they have suffered as a result of the delay. If someone is sick, loses a job, is stuck in jail, or suffers from long-term anxiety related to the outcome of the case, a delayed trial may violate their rights. Similarly, if witnesses start to forget what they saw, evidence begins to decay, or individuals involved with the case start to move away or die, then the case itself may become too prejudiced and unreliable to continue. In most cases, a one-year delay in a misdemeanor case is considered sufficient prejudice even without documented harm to the defendant.
Is it Good to Have a Speedy Trial?
Sometimes. In straightforward cases, it can be beneficial to have a trial move forward and be resolved quickly so you can move on with your life. If the prosecution violates your right to a speedy trial, it can cause great anxiety and stress while you worry about the case’s outcome. Similarly, a quick trial can ensure the witnesses’ memories are the most reliable, which can be beneficial for witnesses on your behalf and for questioning the prosecution’s witnesses’ versions of events.
When Should You Waive Your Right to a Speedy Trial?
Sometimes it is best to waive your right to a speedy trial. Delaying the trial can give your defense lawyer more time to prepare your case by gathering evidence on your behalf and developing arguments to counter the evidence presented by the prosecution. Your criminal attorney can advise you on when it is best to work within the time frame of a speedy trial and when you should waive this right.
What if Someone Fails to Appear in Court?
Speedy trial rights still apply even when a defendant fails to appear in court. The government has a duty to find people, so the prosecution’s due diligence will be examined in these cases. If a person does not show up at the arraignment, but they appear five years later, the defense attorney can still file a Serna motion, requiring the government to show what efforts they made to find the defendant.
If you feel your right to a speedy trial has been violated, Peter M. Liss can help. He can evaluate your case, determine if a Serna motion is warranted, and, if so, file one on your behalf based on the California or federal Constitution. Please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free consultation at one of his two law offices in San Diego County.