Right to a Speedy Trial: Sixth Amendment, Criminal Procedure

This article explores the right to a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, detailing its legal foundations, implications in criminal procedure, key Supreme Court cases, and procedural aspects, including the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.

The right to a speedy trial is a fundamental aspect of the American criminal justice system, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This right ensures that individuals accused of crimes are not subjected to prolonged detention and that their cases are resolved in a timely manner. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the right to a speedy trial, its legal foundations, and its implications in criminal procedure.


The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees several rights to individuals accused of crimes, including the right to a speedy trial. This right is crucial in maintaining the integrity of the criminal justice system and protecting the rights of defendants. The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 further codifies this right, providing specific time frames and procedures to ensure timely trials.

The Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment states:

"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

This amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, and it outlines several critical protections for defendants in criminal cases. The right to a speedy trial is intended to prevent undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial, minimize anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation, and limit the possibility that the defense will be impaired by the passage of time.

Speedy Trial Act of 1974

The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 (18 U.S.C. §§ 3161-3174) was enacted to give effect to the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of a speedy trial. The Act sets specific time limits for various stages of federal criminal prosecutions. Key provisions include:

  • An indictment or information must be filed within 30 days of a defendant's arrest or service of a summons.
  • A trial must commence within 70 days from the filing date of the indictment or information, or from the date the defendant appears before a judicial officer, whichever is later.
  • Certain periods of delay are excluded from the time limits, such as delays resulting from pretrial motions, competency examinations, and other specified proceedings.

For more information, refer to the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.

When the Right to a Speedy Trial Applies

Commencement of the Right

The right to a speedy trial attaches when a defendant is formally accused, either by indictment or information, or when they are arrested and held to answer a criminal charge. This means that the protections of the Sixth Amendment apply from the point of formal accusation or arrest, not before.

Factors Affecting Speedy Trial Claims

The Supreme Court, in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), established a four-factor balancing test to determine whether a defendant's right to a speedy trial has been violated. These factors are:

  1. Length of Delay: The delay must be considered "presumptively prejudicial" to trigger further analysis.
  2. Reason for the Delay: Delays caused by the prosecution weigh heavily against the government, while delays caused by the defense do not.
  3. Defendant's Assertion of the Right: Whether and how the defendant asserted their right to a speedy trial.
  4. Prejudice to the Defendant: The impact of the delay on the defendant, including oppressive pretrial incarceration, anxiety, and impairment of the defense.

For a detailed discussion, see the Constitution Annotated.

Key Supreme Court Cases

Barker v. Wingo (1972)

In Barker v. Wingo, the Supreme Court established the four-factor balancing test to evaluate speedy trial claims. The case involved a delay of over five years between the defendant's arrest and trial. The Court held that the delay did not violate the defendant's right to a speedy trial, emphasizing the need to consider the specific circumstances of each case.

Doggett v. United States (1992)

In Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647 (1992), the Supreme Court addressed the issue of delay caused by government negligence. The defendant was indicted in 1980, but the government failed to apprehend him until 1988. The Court held that the eight-and-a-half-year delay violated the defendant's right to a speedy trial, as it was primarily attributable to government negligence.

Lower Court Decisions

Lower courts have applied the principles established by the Supreme Court to a wide range of cases, considering factors such as the complexity of the case, the conduct of the parties, and the specific circumstances of the delay. For example, in United States v. Loud Hawk, 474 U.S. 302 (1986), the Court considered the impact of pretrial motions and interlocutory appeals on the speedy trial analysis.

Procedural Aspects

Filing a Motion to Dismiss

Defendants who believe their right to a speedy trial has been violated can file a motion to dismiss the charges. The motion must be supported by evidence demonstrating the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, the defendant's assertion of the right, and the prejudice suffered as a result of the delay. Courts will evaluate the motion using the Barker v. Wingo balancing test.

For an example of a motion to dismiss, see the Maine.gov template.

Excludable Delays

The Speedy Trial Act specifies certain periods of delay that are excluded from the time limits for bringing a defendant to trial. These excludable delays include:

  • Delays resulting from pretrial motions.
  • Delays resulting from the defendant's mental or physical incompetence.
  • Delays resulting from the unavailability of essential witnesses.
  • Delays resulting from the defendant's involvement in other proceedings.

For a comprehensive list of excludable delays, refer to 18 U.S.C. § 3161(h).

State Variations

State Constitutions and Statutes

While the Sixth Amendment applies to federal prosecutions, states have their own constitutions and statutes that provide similar protections. For example, the Nebraska State Constitution, Article I-11, guarantees the right to a speedy trial in state criminal prosecutions. Many states have enacted their own speedy trial statutes, which may have different time limits and procedural requirements.

For more information, see the Nebraska State Constitution Article I-11.

State Court Rules

State court rules also play a significant role in implementing the right to a speedy trial. These rules may outline specific procedures for asserting the right, calculating time limits, and addressing delays. For example, the Michigan Court Rules, Chapter 6, provide detailed guidelines for criminal procedure, including the right to a speedy trial.

For more information, see the Michigan Court Rules, Chapter 6.


The right to a speedy trial is a fundamental protection for individuals accused of crimes, ensuring that they are not subjected to prolonged detention and that their cases are resolved in a timely manner. The Sixth Amendment and the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 provide the legal framework for this right, while case law and procedural rules guide its implementation. Understanding the right to a speedy trial is essential for defendants, attorneys, and anyone involved in the criminal justice system.

For further reading and official resources, refer to the following links:

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