Written by attorney Benjamin G Kelsen

The Right to Speedy Trial in NJ Municipal Courts

The test for assessing the defendant's speedy trial claim is the same in municipal court as it is in Superior Court, balancing the length of the delay, the reasons for the delay, the defendant's assertion of speedy-trial rights, and any prejudice to the defendant caused by the delay. See State v. Gallegan, 117 N.J. 345, 355 (1989); State v. Berezansky, 386 N.J. Super. 84, 99 (App. Div. 2006), appeal dismissed 196 N.J. 82 (2008); State v. Fulford, 349 N.J. Super. at 189. The United States Supreme Court created the four-factor balancing test in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514, 530-532 (1972). The Barker Court also cited the "amorphous quality" of the speedy-trial right: "It is, for example, impossible to determine with precision when the right has been denied. We cannot definitely say how long is too long in a system where justice is supposed to be swift but deliberate." 407 U.S. at 521. Most often, the determinative factor under the Barker analysis is the extent to which the defendant either is responsible for any delay, or has acquiesced in the delay (implicitly or explicitly). In Fulford, for example, the court held that the defendant's speedy-trial rights had not been violated, despite a delay of 32 months from the defendant's arrest to his conditional guilty plea on DWI charges. Although the entire delay was attributable to the State's failure to prosecute the DWI charge while the defendant completed pretrial intervention on a related weapons charge, the court observed that the defendant had failed to assert his speedy trial rights until 28 months had elapsed after his arrest. The court stated that "[w]hile an accused has no duty to bring himself or herself to trial, it is difficult to prevail on a speedy trial claim without a timely assertion of rights." State v. Fulford, 349 N.J. Super. at 193. Applying the Barker v. Wingo factors, the court disapproved of the State's inaction in holding the DWI charge until completion of the PTI proceeding. In addition, the court noted the defendant's claim of prejudice in the form of diminished business prospects, acknowledging that "[p]rejudice is not limited to impairment of a defendant's defense." Nevertheless, the court concluded that the defendant's failure to raise the speedy-trial issue, coupled with his ability to complete PTI and to continue to drive while the DWI charge was pending, outweighed both the lengthy delay and the asserted prejudice. See also State v. Newman, 218 N.J. Super. 580, 588 (Law Div. 1987), aff'd 223 N.J. Super. 284 (App. Div. 1988), stating in dictum that a defendant who had sought suspended proceedings to complete PTI could not claim prejudice resulting from any delay in sentencing on a related motor-vehicle charge. In State v. Detrick, 192 N.J. Super. 424, 426 (App. Div. 1983), the court rejected a speedy-trial claim, notwithstanding that the seven-and-one-half month delay between complaint and trial resulted in part from an administrative, conflict-based transfer of the case to a different municipal court, and in part from the absence of a police witness on one scheduled trial date. The court reasoned that the defendant's attorney did not raise the issue until the date of trial. In addition, the court observed, there was no showing of prejudice to the defendant. And see State v. Szima, 70 N.J. 196, 202 (1976), stating that a 22-month delay between the defendant's arraignment in municipal court on bookmaking charges and his indictment "should not have happened," but nonetheless finding no speedy-trial violation, primarily because the defendant made no effort to assert the right by moving to dismiss the pending complaint. See also State v. Hulsizer, 42 N.J. Super. 224, 228 (App. Div. 1956), indicating that the right to a speedy trial may be waived by a failure to assert it. Compare State v. Farrell 320 Super. 425, 446, 449-450 (App. Div. 1999), acknowledging that "[d]elay caused or requested by the defendant is not considered to weigh in favor of finding a speedy trial violation," but nevertheless ruling that two postponements resulting from defense counsel's scheduling conflicts were not chargeable to the defendant under a speedy-trial analysis. On one occasion, the attorney was absent when the case was called for trial, but had telephoned the court to report that he had been detained by an older case in another municipality. The court opted for an adjournment, notwithstanding the attorney's arrival only nine minutes later. On the other occasion, the attorney was required to attend an emergency argument in the Appellate Division. The appellate court's willingness to excuse these two instances may have been colored by the excessive delays attributable to the municipal court itself, as well as by the attorney's preparedness and his diligence in asserting his client's speedy-trial rights. Balancing all of these factors, the court held that speedy-trial principles had been violated. See the detailed discussion of Farrell at 16:7-2b. See also State v. Perkins, 219 N.J. Super. 121, 125, 129 (Law Div. 1987), holding that a prosecution should have been dismissed when the State requested a second postponement based on the absence of a key witness after having been warned that further delay would not be allowed. The Perkins court did not engage in an extensive speedy-trial analysis, indicating only that the delay was chargeable to the State. In the mid-1980's, the Supreme Court issued a directive recommending that municipal courts attempt to dispose of DWI cases within sixty days of the defendant's arrest. See State v. Farrell, 320 N.J. Super. at 446-447; State v. Fox, 249 N.J. Super. 521, 523 n.1 (Law Div. 1991); State v. Perkins, 219 N.J. Super. at 124. At the same time, however, the Court and the AOC discouraged the "automatic" dismissal of DWI cases when the arresting police officer was absent on the day of trial, recommending that the case be postponed if the prosecutor was unable to secure the officer's presence immediately. In basic terms, the delay in a drunken driving case must exceed six months in order to be considered unreasonable. How much longer than six months the delay must be is still an open question. In F,arrell, the court deemed a delay of 633 days to be excessive and a violation of the defendant's right to a speedy trial. In a recent case in which we appeared, the Defendant was in no way connected with the delays in bringing this matter before the Court. In fact, counsel, in the initial letter of representation to the Court in December of 2008 asserted the defense of Speedy Trial. According to the theory put forth in Farrell, the Defendant invoked his right to a speedy trial almost 550 days ago. While it may be true that the municipal court also was not involved in the delay, the municipal court, as part of the New Jersey Judiciary had no recourse but to dismiss for lack of prosecution and violation of the Defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

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