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The Right to a Speedy Trial in Alabama - Part 1

This is Part One of a four-part article.

THE RIGHT TO A SPEEDY TRIAL IN ALABAMA by William L. Pfeifer, Jr.

Introduction. A defendant's right to a speedy trial is intended to lessen any potential incarceration before a trial, to reduce any impairment of liberty if a defendant is out on bail, and to defuse any disruption in a defendant's attempt to defend himself in any criminal proceeding.United States v. MacDonald, 456 U.S. 1, 8 (1982). In Alabama, a defendant's right to a speedy trial derives from both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 6 of the Alabama Constitution. Although the United States Supreme Court affirmed the right to a speedy trial as a fundamental right imposed at the state level by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213 (1967), the Court did not provide any real guidance on how to determine whether or not there had been a denial of the right to a speedy trial until the case of Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), where it established a four-prong balancing test. The four factors to be balanced are (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reasons for the delay, (3) the defendant’s assertion of his right, and (4) the prejudice to the defendant. Any analysis of whether a defendant has been denied his right to a speedy trial is based on this test.

Factor 1: The Length of the Delay. The first factor to be considered is the length of the delay. A court is not required to conduct a balancing of the four factors unless the length of the delay is presumptively prejudicial1. Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530. “The length of the delay is measured from the date of the indictment or the date of the issuance of an arrest warrant - whichever is earlier - to the date of the trial." Roberson v. State, 864 So. 2d 379, 394 (Ala. Crim. App. 2002). That being said, several cases on this issue indicate they are measuring the length of the delay up to the date of the motion to dismiss, rather than the actual trial date.

A defendant's Sixth Amendment protection is triggered by the beginning of a criminal prosecution. Ex parte Carrell, 565 So. 2d 104 (Ala. 1990), cert denied, 498 U.S. 1040 (1991). Alabama Code § 15-3-7 (1975) directs that a prosecution is commenced by the finding of an indictment, the issuing of a warrant, or by the binding over of the defendant to a grand jury. In Marion v. United States, 404 U.S. 307, 321 (1971), the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment speedy trial guarantee commences upon the filing of an indictment, information, or other formal charge, or when a defendant "has been arrested and held to answer."In Doggett v. United States, 505 U.S. 647 (1992), the Court held that the Sixth Amendment speedy trial protection attached when the defendant was indicted, even though he was not arrested and was apparently unaware of the indictment until more than eight years later. In Dillingham v. United States, 423 U.S. 64 (1975), the Court held that the Sixth Amendment speedy trial protection attached when the defendant was arrested and released on bond, even though he was not indicted until 22 months later.

Commencement of the prosecution is the event that triggers the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Steeley v. City of Gadsden, 533 So. 2d 671 (Ala. Crim. App. 1988); Mansel v. State, 716 So. 2d 234 (Ala. Crim. App. 1997). Thus, a pre-arrest delay (between the time of the alleged crime and the formal commencement of prosecution) is not considered in evaluating whether there has been a denial of the right to a speedy trial. Further, in cases involving a retrial, the time period is measured from “the action commencing the retrial."Weaver v. State, 763 So. 2d 972, 978 (Ala. Crim. App. 1998), citingNickerson v. State, 629 So. 2d 60, 62-3 (Ala. Crim. App. 1993).

Alabama courts have struggled with the issue of what constitutes an unreasonable delay in the prosecution of a case. In Steeley v. City of Gadsden, 533 So. 2d 671 (Ala. Crim. App. 1988), the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals initially appeared to adopt the reasoning of the California courts in Serna v. Superior Court (People), 40 Cal. 3d 239, 219, Cal. Rptr. 420, 707 P.2d 793, 806 (1985) to address this issue. In Serna, the California Supreme Court stated that the statute of limitations for the offense should be "the touchstone for measuring the reasonableness of a delay between complaint and arrest" because the statute of limitations "reflect a legislative construction of the speedy trial guarantee." In Steeley, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with this reasoning, and found that a nearly 14-month delay in the prosecution of a misdemeanor case (which has a 12-month statute of limitations)2was presumptively prejudicial. This is consistent with the Supreme Court's analysis inBarker v. Wingo, which stated, "[t]o take but one example, the delay that can be tolerated for an ordinary street crime is considerably less than for a serious, complex conspiracy charge." 407 U.S. at 531.

Despite appearing at that time to adopt the statute of limitations approach as a guideline to determining what length of time would be presumptively prejudicial, opinions since Steeley have ignored that issue or whether the offense was a misdemeanor or felony. The cases often appear unclear and somewhat inconsistent in their reasoning as to why one time period raises a presumption of prejudice while another similar time period does not. Some cases provide no analysis and simply reference time periods cited in other opinions before making a conclusion that a time period is or is not presumptively prejudicial. See, e.g., Mansel v. State, 716 So. 2d 234 (Ala. Crim. App. 1997). The standard generally evolved into that the courts would simply make the determination on a case-by-case basis.

For example, in Beaver v. State, 455 So. 2d 253 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984), a delay of 16 months was presumptively prejudicial; 19 months was presumptively prejudicial in Ingram v. State, 629 So. 2d 800 (Ala. Crim. App. 1993); 26 months was presumptively prejudicial in Mansel v. State, 716 So. 2d 234 (Ala. Crim. App. 1997); and a delay of over 26 months resulted in a presumption of prejudice in Broadnax v. State, 455 So. 2d 205 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984). A delay of 60 months was presumptively prejudicial in Ex parte Taylor, 720 So. 2d 1054 (Ala. Crim. App. 1988); 56 months created a presumption of prejudice in Wooden v. State, 822 So. 2d 455 (Ala. Crim. App. 2000); and a 42-month delay was presumptively prejudicial in Benefield v. State, 726 So. 2d 286 (Ala. Crim. App. 1998). However, in Ex parte Apicella, 809 So. 2d 865 (Ala. 2001), a 14-month delay was not presumptively prejudicial; 26 months was not presumptively prejudicial in Campbell v. State, 709 So. 2d 1329 (Ala. Crim. App. 1997); and 19 months on a retrial was not presumptively prejudicial in Weaver v. State, 763 So. 2d 972 (Ala. Crim. App. 1998), despite being preceded by a 24-month delay in the first trial.

In Clancy v. State, 886 So.2d 166 (Ala. Crim. App. 2003) the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed a 19- month delay and attempted to determine whether it was presumptively prejudicial to the defendant. The court cited a number of its own previous rulings where a similar delay had created a presumption of prejudice in some cases, but had not created a presumption of prejudice in others. Unable to clearly conclude whether Clancy's 19-month delay was presumptively prejudicial, the court chose to balance the remaining three factors "in an abundance of caution." Even though the Clancy court did not make a specific finding on the first factor, other rulings have required a finding that the length of the delay is presumptively prejudicial before requiring an analysis of the other three Barker v. Wingo factors. However, cases like Ex parte Walker, 928 So. 2d 259 (Ala. 2005), seem to indicate that the court may be trending towards an increasingly lenient view of the delay necessary to establish presumptive prejudice, citing federal case law and treatises to indicate that a delay of approximately a year may be enough to be “presumptively prejudicial."

Note: This is part one of a four-part article on Alabama's speedy trial right. Please read all four parts of the article in order to understand this complex legal issue.

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