Pennsylvania Right to a Speedy Trial Not As Clear As Written


Most people are familiar with some basic constitutional rights, including the right to a trial by jury, right to confront witnesses against you, right against self-incrimination, and the right to a speedy and prompt trial. Over the years that I have been a State College criminal defense lawyer, I have received many calls from prospective clients that wanted me to seek a dismissal of charges based upon a perceived violation of the criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

In Pennsylvania, a rule of criminal procedure generally requires that a person must be taken to a trial within 365 days of the date that the charges are filed. If the criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial is violated, then the court must dismiss the charges. On paper, the rule appears very clear and easy to apply. The date that charges are filed is readily discernible, so one would expect that it should be relatively easy to determine whether or not a criminal defendant’s case proceeded to a trial within 365 days of the filing date. The problem is that there are so many exceptions to the rule that it is often very difficult to determine whether or not a person’s right to a speedy trial has been violated.

Exceptions to Pennsylvania Speedy Trial Rule

Within the rule, there are written exceptions to 365 day rule. For example, the rule provides that if the criminal defendant or the criminal defense lawyer files a continuance request, the delay caused by such a request is not held against the prosecution. Such an exception makes sense as a criminal defendant or his criminal defense attorney should not be permitted to continue the case and thereby create a violation of the speedy trial rule.

Unwritten Exceptions to Right to a Speedy Trial 

The written exceptions to the right to a speedy trial are generally pretty clear, but, what is more problematic is that the courts have created many exceptions to the speedy trial rule over the years. Such exceptions have substantially eroded a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial. The courts in Pennsylvania have stated that while the criminal defendant has a right to a speedy trial, the Commonwealth also has a right to prosecute cases, and those two interests must be somewhat balanced in these cases. Basically, the courts are now looking at whether the failure to bring the defendant to trial was a result of the defendant’s actions, the court’s actions, or a failure to act by the prosecution.

Penn State Marijuana Possession Charges Dismissed for Violating Speedy Trial Right

I recently obtained a favorable resolution for a client by obtaining the dismissal of misdemeanor charges of Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana and Paraphernalia. I argued that the prosecution of the drug possession case violated the client’s right to a speedy trial. In the case, the Penn State police officer put the incorrect address for the client on the paperwork that was filed by the court. While Penn State University had the client’s correct mailing address for billing purposes, the police did not have the correct address for criminal court mailing purposes. The officer became aware of the mistake after the client failed to appear for the first hearing, and, at that point, the client provided the officer with the correct contact information during a phone call. Despite having the correct mailing information, nothing was done by the Penn State police for over 2 years to pursue the prosecution of the drug possession charges. The delay in prosecuting the case was partially caused by the fact that the Penn State officer quit and probably didn’t inform his superiors of the status of the case. After 2 years, the police did make a phone call to the police in the client’s home county, and, that very day, the client was arrested and taken before a judge. I then filed a motion to dismiss the misdemeanor marijuana charges as the prosecution had failed to bring the client to a trial within 1 year of the filing date. The Centre County judge agreed and issued an order that dismissed the charges.

My case was very unique in that the police admittedly knew of the client’s address yet did nothing to bring him before a judge. The violation of the criminal client’s right to a speedy trial was egregious in this case. Generally, the police in the Centre County area, including the State College and Penn State police departments, are vigilant in prosecuting cases and thereby violations of the right to a speedy trial are relatively infrequent.