Supreme Court Agrees to Resolve Circuit Split Regarding Speedy Trial Act in Federal Criminal Cases

In 1996, in United States v. Mejia, the Eleventh Circuit federal appeals court in Atlanta, Georgia, held that a court order granting a criminal defendant’s motion for additional time to file pretrial motions tolled the Speedy Trial clock for the duration of the extension of time. Last July, the Eight Circuit agreed with the Eleventh Circuit and five others in United States v. Bloate. However, two circuit courts of appeals, the Fourth and the Sixth, have held the opposite. Due to this split, the Supreme Court of the United States has granted certiorari in Bloate. We hope the justices of the Court agree with the Fourth and Sixth Circuits when it hears arguments in the fall.

The federal Speedy Trial Act requires that a criminal defendant be tried within 70 days of whichever is later: the indictment or the defendant’s first appearance in court. In calculating the 70-day period, the Act excludes “delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant, including but not limited to… delay resulting from any pretrial motion, from the filing of the motion through the conclusion of the hearing on, or other prompt disposition of, such motion.” Rather than the time between filing and disposition of motions, Bloate and Mejia have dealt with the time defendants request for preparing motions, prior to filing.

The government and the majority of circuit courts have argued that such time should be excluded from the 70-day period because that time is “delay resulting from other proceedings concerning the defendant.” They say that the phrase “including but not limited to” in the Speedy Trial Act indicates that the specifically enumerated delays are only examples, rather than an exhaustive list. The Fourth and Sixth Circuits point out, though, that the Congressional decision to specifically address a time period involving pre-trial motions, but to limit it to the time between filing and disposition, strongly indicates that Congress did not intend to exclude the preparation time from the Speedy Trial Act.

One particularly disconcerting aspect of Mejia did not factor into the Bloate decision, but we hope that the Supreme Court takes notice of the issue. The district court judge in Mejia granted an indefinite extension of time, allowing for filing of pre-trial motions until fifteen days prior to trial, rather than extending the deadline a certain number of days. Trial did not begin for another ten months in that case. The opinion does not reveal when additional motions were filed, if any, and whether any non-excludable delays accounted for any part of that ten-month period. Furthermore, in this multi-defendant case, the request for extension of time by only one defendant resulted in an extreme excludable delay for all of the codefendants.

The Eleventh Circuit placed the burden on the defendant, suggesting he limit his request for extra time to a definite period, choose not to request an extension at all, or object to an open-ended extension. Just three years later, though, in United States v. Williams, the Eleventh Circuit decided a similar question regarding a court’s sua sponte grant of addition time for filing motions, and stated, “[W]e believe that the burden should not be on the defendant to take affirmative steps to keep the speedy-trial clock running.” Even failing to consider the affect one defendant’s actions can have on all of his codefendants, such a view of the defendant’s burden is a fundamental principle of criminal law.

The United States Supreme Court must not address the issue of defendants’ requests for additional time without taking into consideration whether the court limits the extension to a definite time period. An indefinite period until only days before trial allows courts to vitiate the Speedy Trial Act altogether. We most hope, of course, the Supreme Court renders this point moot by agreeing that extensions granted for filing pre-trial motions are not excludable for purposes of calculating time under the Speedy Trial Act.