Congress Should Clarify the Speedy Trial Act To Resolve Differing Interpretations

GGD-81-1: Published: Nov 18, 1980. Publicly Released: Nov 18, 1980.

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The intent of the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 is to speed the prosecution of accused persons in order to isolate those found guilty and prevent additional crimes by setting uniform time limits within which U.S. district courts have to process criminal cases. As of July 1, 1980, the Act provides for the dismissal of Federal criminal cases not processed within established time limits. The first time limit, 30 days (Interval I), includes the period from arrest to indictment. The second time limit, 70 days (Interval II), includes the period from either indictment or the defendant's first appearance before the court to the start of trial, plea of guilty, or dismissal.

GAO found that compliance with the Act's requirements has increased steadily over the past 4 years. However, because the executive and judicial branches interpret some provisions of the act differently, future criminal cases might be inappropriately dismissed. After the start of Interval I, cases are sometimes dismissed because U.S. attorneys are unable or choose not to move the cases within the 30-day limit. With the case dismissed and the time limit removed, prosecutors gain more time to prepare their case and then indict at a later date. However, this practice has the effect of slowing down the processing of criminal cases. The Judicial Conference (JC) and the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA) believe that the Act does not prohibit this practice, and that it is often necessary to enable further investigation of criminal activities. EOUSA believes that the Act is not clear as to the starting date of Interval II. However, JC maintains that the Act is clear. Issues have arisen in the implementing of the 30-day minimum period after the defendant's first appearance. The issues are: (1) whether excludable periods of delay apply; (2) what constitutes a defendant's first appearance; and (3) whether the minimum period is applicable to superseding charges. GAO found that defendants were waiving their rights to dismissal before the case was subject to dismissal for exceeding the Act's time limits. The waivers had the effect of delaying the start of trials.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Because there was a difference of opinion between the Executive Office for the U.S. Attorneys and the Judicial Conference, GAO recommended that the Act be revised. Congress has decided not to change the Act and allow the court system to resolve this issue which was an alternative GAO identified.

    Matter: Congress should amend the Speedy Trial Act to clarify the starting date of Interval II.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Executive Office and the Administrative Office took the position that this issue would be resolved through the courts' appellate process. GAO believes that a better course of action would be revision of the Act. Congress decided to let the court system resolve the issue.

    Matter: Congress should amend the Speedy Trial Act to specify whether dismissal waivers in advance of the expiration of the time limits are allowable and, if so, their effect on other provisions of the act.

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Executive Office and the Administrative Office took the position that the issue would be resolved through the courts' appellate process. Since Congress has agreed with this position and has decided not to revise the Act, GAO believes the recommendation is no longer valid.

    Matter: Congress should (1) clarify whether or not excludable periods of delay are to apply to the minimum 30 day period before trial can commence, (2) define a defendant's first appearance through counsel to start the 30-day period, and (3) clarify whether and when the 30-day period is applicable to superseding charges.

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Judicial Conference and the Executive Office stated that the dismissal of complaints and subsequent indictments for the same crimes starts a new Interval I. GAO believed such a view was delaying the speedy disposition of criminal cases, one of the Acts' major objectives and recommended that Congress clarify this issue. Congress decided not to take action.

    Matter: Congress should clarify how and under what circumstances pre-indictment dismissals followed by an indictment affect the Interval I time limit.

 

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