The 6th Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause guarantees that if you are
accused of a crime, you will be tried quickly. This clause
was added to the Bill of Rights by the Founding Fathers to protect
people from lengthy periods of incarceration before they were found
guilty of a crime. This was a well established part of English Common
Law even before the colonization of America.
The Speedy Trial Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy... trial."
The Speedy Trial Clause is meant to accomplish three primary things,
according to the Supreme Court:
The Speedy Trial Clause also serves several public interests, apart
from the interests of the accused. The public pays great expense to
house someone while they are incarcerated. If the person is actually
guilty and he is out on bail, he could commit another
crime before the trial. He could also be tempted to run if the
pre-trial period is very long or be able to finagle a lesser charge or
The idea that the government cannot imprison people without giving them
access to a review by a court goes back far into English history. The
Assize of Clarendon of 1166 and the Magna Carta of 1215 both touch on this. The English
Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 required speedy hearings when the
accused person was out on bail. The intention was to prevent a lengthy
period of incarceration before a trial and guilty verdict.
The right to a speedy trial became a bedrock principle of English
common law that was carried to America by the colonists. After the
Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers wrote a new constitution to
govern themselves. As the Constitution of the United States was being
discussed, many people felt that it did not provide strong enough
protections for many individual rights from the government. These
people threatened to reject the Constitution unless a Bill of Rights
was added to it. A Bill of Rights is a list of specific rights that the
government cannot infringe upon.
In order to secure the agreement of these people, the First Congress voted to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. James Madison proposed twenty amendments to the Congress on June 8, 1789. The right to a speedy trial was one of them. The idea of the right to a speedy trial was so universal among the Founders that it was approved without a word of discussion about it. You can read Madison's June 8 speech to Congress here.
The Congress approved twelve amendments and sent them to the states for ratification. The states approved ten of these, which are now known as the Bill of Rights. The Speedy Trial Clause and the other parts of the first ten amendments became law on December 15, 1791. You can read more about the Purpose of the Bill of Rights here.
The right to a speedy trial officially begins when a person is arrested
or indicted by a grand jury, not when an investigation begins. The
Federal Speedy Trial Act of 1974 defines the time frame in which a
criminal trial must begin. Generally, charges must be filed within 30
days of an arrest and a trial must commence within seventy days of the
charges being filed.
For most violations of a criminal defendant's constitutional rights, a new trial is ordered. For a 6th Amendment Speedy Trial violation, however, new trials are not allowed. If a Speedy Trial violation has occurred, the conviction will be thrown out without a possibility of retrial.
Courts very rarely find Speedy Trial violations for this reason. They do not like the possibility that someone who is guilty could go free. For this reason, the Supreme Court gives lower courts very broad discretion in judging speedy trial violation claims. Even delays of up to several years before there is a trial are often not considered to be Speedy Trial Clause violations by the court.
Originally, as with all the restrictions upon the government in the US Bill of Rights, the 6th Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause only applied to the Federal government. After the Civil War, and the adoption of the 14th Amendment, the courts have applied almost all parts of the Bill of Rights, including the Speedy Trial Clause, to the states as well, through the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause. You can read the 14th Amendment here.
Charges can be dismissed by a court if there has been too long a delay before a trial. In some jurisdictions, the length of time between charges being filed and the date the trial must begin, is defined by statute. In other cases, a court can dismiss charges with a subjective reviewing of the facts.
If a person fails to make a claim that his 6th Amendment right to a speedy trial has been violated before a trial or guilty plea, the defendant may lose his right to make this claim, especially if the delay has benefited him somehow.
You can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment Court Cases dealing with the Speedy Trial Clause here.
Return to 6th Amendment
Other 6th Amendment clauses:
to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.
Read the Bill of Rights here.
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