The Right to a Speedy Trial in New Jersey: Legal Groups Pushing for Set Time Limits

February 18, 2014

It is frequently stated that the millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow.  Moreover, in New Jersey, unlike most other jurisdictions (including the federal government), there is no fixed time limit on when criminal cases must be brought to trial.  Recently, however, New Jersey legal groups have begun pushing for such time limits.  The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, through a committee headed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, have proposed setting time limits. 

The New Jersey State and Federal Constitutions guarantee the right to a speedy trial in all criminal prosecutions.  That right attaches when a defendant becomes an “accused” upon arrest or indictment, whichever occurs first, and continues until the charges are dismissed, the defendant is no longer subject to restraints on his liberty through bail or incarceration, or the defendant is sentenced upon conviction of the crimes charged.  If the right to a speedy trial is violated, dismissal of the indictment with prejudice is required.

Rather than setting a time limit for when a case must be disposed, however, New Jersey courts use a four-factor test to determine whether or not a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated.  Those factors are: (1) the length of delay; (2) the  reason for delay; (3) the defendant’s assertion of his right to speedy trial; and (4)  the prejudice to the defendant.

The first factor, length of the delay, is variable and depends on the seriousness of the charges against the defendant.  The more serious the charge, the more delay will be tolerated.  The second factor the court entertains is the reason for the delay. Where the delay is a deliberate attempt by the State to hamper the defense, then such delay should be weighed heavily against the State. Any delay caused by the defendant, on the other hand, does not weigh in favor of a speedy trial violation.  The third factor to be considered is whether a defendant has asserted his right to a speedy trial. However, in New Jersey, the failure to make application to the Assignment Judge for speedy trial does not constitute a waiver of the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.  Prejudice to the Defendant is the fourth factor to be considered in deciding whether a Defendant was denied his right to a speedy trial.  The accused, however, does not need to demonstrate prejudice if the first factors weigh heavily in their favor.  Prejudice may include factors such as employment interruptions and financial considerations.

Application of this case-by-case approach has yielded unpredictable results.  In one case, for example, a court found that a delay of 344 days violated the defendant’s right to a speedy trial while in another case, a court found that a 32 month delay did not.  The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender has therefore proposed setting a six month time limit within which a case must be brought to trial after indictment.  Several exceptions would be built into that deadline that would operate to stop the time from running, one example of which would be if the defendant files certain pretrial motions.

We hope that the Supreme Court does in fact set such time limits.  Doing so would reduce incarceration costs, assist in the gathering of evidence, and create fairness.   Moreover, under the current system pre-trial detainees are often unable to afford bail and, unfortunately, innocent people may end up pleading guilty in order to simply be released from jail.  If you feel that your right to a speedy trial or that of a loved one has been violated, contact Randolph H. Wolf today.  As the determination of speedy trial time includes several factors and numerous exceptions to the rule, each case should be reviewed by an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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