Public Health Considerations Trump Statutory Mandate of Speedy Trial, Rules Dist. of Utah

On October 30, in the District of Utah, District Judge Stewart began extending multiple criminal trials (using the same opinion for all defendants) beyond the statutory deadlines mandated by the Speedy Trial Act. Judge Stewart held that public health concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic trumped the “best interests of the public and (the defendant) to a speedy trial.”

The opinion explained that the Speedy Trial Act places certain deadlines on how long a criminal matter going to trial can be extended without violating the Sixth Amendment protection around the right to an expeditious trial. Generally, the Act (with noted exceptions for extension of time) requires all trials for criminal matters to commence within 70 days of arrest and/or indictment. One way to extend this time period is via a delay by the overseeing judge determining that “on the basis of his findings that the ends of justice served by taking such action outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial.” 

Judge Stewart, noting the “expanding number of COVID-19 cases and deaths nationally,” ruled that the “ends of justice” mandated such an extension for the criminal defendants at issue during this present pandemic, despite the reality that an “ends of justice” exclusion of time is “disfavored and ‘was meant to be a rarely used tool for those cases demanding more flexible treatment.’” The court explained that the “need to protect the health of the public in the midst of a deadly pandemic outweighs the rights of (the defendant) and the public to a speedy trial. (T)here is a significantly reduced ability to obtain an adequate spectrum of jurors and available counsel, witnesses, and court personnel to be present in the courtroom for trial. … Long exposure in confined spaces, which is inherent in trial, increases risk of infection. … Counsel’s ability to adequately prepare for trial, including locating and consulting with witnesses, and defense counsel’s ability to confer with Defendant, under these circumstances is also greatly reduced.” 

The judge concluded by ordering all criminal trials to be extended to the first week of February, ruling that the Speedy Trial Act gives the court the discretion to extend said trials, as long as necessary, to further the “ends of justice.” The court concluded by writing that “a failure to continue trial under these circumstances would result in a miscarriage of justice and would deny counsel for the government and (the defendant) the reasonable time necessary for effective preparation.”