The Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure establish time limitations as to when a criminal defendant is charged and to be brought to trial, and these protections are guaranteed in the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
But in many criminal cases, there are a variety of delays that often occur. Delays can result from simple discovery or evidentiary issues; witness issues; or in some cases, neglect.
By way of background, defendants are protected from potential criminal charges through the Statute of Limitations or where the initiation of criminal charges are delayed. By statute. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 277, Section 63, many felonies must be charged within 10 or 15 years from the date of the commission of the alleged crime. The exception is murder, however, for which there is no statute of limitation. By contrast, most misdemeanor offenses must be charged within 6 years from the alleged commission of the crime.
Generally (with some exceptions and variations), the statute of limitations begins to toll (starts running) upon the completion of every element of the criminal offense.
Against this backdrop, a defendant’s speedy trial rights, more specifically defined in Rule 36 of the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, establish time limits for when a case should proceed to trial. Because criminal cases can vary in complexity, there are different time limits for cases that are non-complex (drug cases); somewhat complex (cases that might involve forensic evidence or unique evidentiary issues; and complex (murder, rape, etc.).
Rule 36 essentially mandates that all criminal defendants are guaranteed a trial within 12 months from arraignment. If the 12 months period expires without a trial, a defendant may petition the court to have the charges dismissed, which would bar prosecution for this offense.
However, simply because a criminal case went beyond the 12 month period without a trial does not guarantee that the case will be dismissed. The government may rebut the motion to dismiss by offering evidence that certain delays in the case were excusable.
Excusable delays or “excluded periods” of time can arise from any circumstances that was not the result of the conduct of the prosecution; or where those delays benefited the defendant or he agreed to such delays. A delay benefitting the defendant and that would thereby be ‘excluded’ from the computation for purposes of speedy trial issues include: unavailability of a witness or even the defendant; competence to stand trial; continuances that were granted by the court that were at the request of the defendant or upon the court’s own motion; and some other extraordinary circumstances.
So when does the clock start ticking for purposes of speedy trial issues?
Under Article 11 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the clock starts ticking when a criminal complaint issues against the defendant.
Courts scrutinize speedy trial violations very carefully and, more often in not, the calculations do not benefit the defendant, particularly when the “excluded time period” is calculated. Nonetheless, extraordinary circumstances do present themselves in some cases.
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