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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds FTA Does Not Affect Independent Speedy Trial Violation by Prosecutor

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that a defendant’s failure to appear (“FTA”) for trial after the prosecution had already violated its duty to provide a speedy trial did not excuse the prosecution’s violation, requiring dismissal of the charges with prejudice.

Daniel Barbour was charged in two criminal cases in August 2003. When he failed to appear for his trial in October 2004, the trial court issued a warrant. Ten years later, he was arrested on a different charge and appeared in court to answer for the 2003 charges. He moved to dismiss, citing the Commonwealth’s hard rule that a defendant must be brought to trial within 365 days from the date a written criminal complaint is filed. The prosecutor admitted at the hearing on the matter that the trial scheduling process at the time of Barbour’s 2003 charges was very informal and that he “would have” scheduled the trial for the April 2004 term but said he “didn’t know” for sure. The trial court said it was “not concerned with what ‘would have’ happened,” only with “what did happen.” Because of the Commonwealth’s “outstanding negligence in failing to account for the time that had passed” from the filing of the charges to the violation of the speedy trial rule, the court found Barbour was deprived of his speedy trial right and dismissed the charges. The Commonwealth appealed.

On appeal, the superior court reversed, holding that Barbour should not be rewarded for his FTA, despite the speedy trial violation by the Commonwealth before his FTA. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Barbour’s petition for allowance of appeal.

Under Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600(A)(2)(a), the Commonwealth must bring a defendant to trial “no later than 365 days from the date on which the complaint is filed.” Any period of delay by the Commonwealth does not stop the clock; however, any delay by the defendant does. The Commonwealth’s failure to bring a defendant to trial before the 365-day limit expires requires dismissal of the charges with prejudice, meaning the Commonwealth cannot recharge the defendant.

In Commonwealth v. Steltz, 560 A.2d 1390 (Pa. 1989), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that a defendant’s FTA for his timely trial resulted in a waiver of his rights under Rule 600. The question in Barbour’s case was whether his FTA for his untimely trial under Rule 600 still waived his speedy trial rights.

The Commonwealth argued that a defendant who fails to appear wastes judicial resources and the prosecutor’s valuable time that could have been devoted to other cases and that the Steltz rule should apply even to FTA for a trial that is in violation of Rule 600. Barbour argued his case is different: he “did not fail to appear for a properly scheduled trial” and that Steltz applies only in a timely commenced trial.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that Rule 600 was created in response to Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972). In Barker, the U.S. Supreme Court held that courts must protect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The Court reasoned that “the time spent in jail awaiting trial has a detrimental impact on the individual. It often means loss of a job; it disrupts family life; and it enforces idleness.” Even if an accused is not in jail prior to trial, the Court said that “he is still disadvantaged by restraints on his liberty and by living under a cloud of anxiety, suspicion, and often hostility.” Rule 600 was created to implement the principles and rationale articulated in Barker.

“In assessing any period of delay under Rule 600, it is critical to ascertain the cause of such delay,” the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said. In Steltz, the key was that the defendant’s FTA was for a timely scheduled trial, the Court noted. Rule 600 “was never intended to be used as a device by which a defendant may escape responsibility for his actions, the Court has held. However, “in this case, by the time that Barbour failed to appear for trial, the dictates of Rule 600 had already been transgressed,” the Court concluded. “To be sure, it would be absurd to permit a defendant to ‘game the system’ by unlawfully absconding from trial, then invoking the resultant delay as grounds for dismissal under Rule 600.”

The Commonwealth, however, “also may not benefit from its own fault” for not scheduling a timely trial under Rule 600. “Two wrongs do not make a right,” the Court said. The superior court’s reversal of Barbour’s dismissed charges as “punishment for Barbour’s failure to appear by revoking his Rule 600 rights had no basis in law,” the Court explained.

Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the superior court’s decision and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Barbour’s charges with prejudice. See: Commonwealth v. Barbour, 189 A.3d 944 (Pa. 2018). 

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