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Montana Supreme Court: Five-Year Delay Violates Speedy Trial and Is Presumptively Prejudicial

In May 2012, Chambers was arrested and confined in Stillwater County for his role in a string of burglaries in that county. On June 15, 2012 – while still confined in Stillwater County – Chambers was served with an arrest warrant for a burglary and theft that occurred in Fergus County. In February 2013, he was sentenced to eight concurrent 20-year prison sentences for the Stillwater County offenses and transferred to the Montana State Prison (“MSP”).

In June 2013, Fergus County placed a detainer on Chambers. Five years later, while still at the MSP, Chambers filed a motion to dismiss the Fergus County charges, arguing that the five-year delay violated his right to a speedy trial. The district court denied his motion. Chambers pleaded guilty to the Fergus County charges, reserving his right to appeal the denial of the speedy trial motion. The district court imposed a five-year sentence on the burglary and six months on the theft, all suspended – but consecutive to the Stillwater sentences. Chambers appealed, arguing the single issue that he was denied his right to a speedy trial. 

The Montana Supreme Court observed that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article II, § 24 of the Montana Constitution guarantee the right to a speedy trial. If a delay between accusation and trial exceeds 200 days, a presumption of prejudice arises, and speedy trial analysis is mandated. State v. Ariegwe, 167 P.3d 815 (Mont. 2007). Courts evaluate the claim by balancing four factors: (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reasons for the delay, (3) the accused’s responses to the delay, and (4) prejudice to the accused. Id.

Under factor (1), the longer the delay, the stronger the presumption that the accused has been prejudiced by the delay. Id. Factor (2) requires courts to identify each period of delay, attribute each period of delay to the party responsible for it, and assign weight based on the cause and the culpability. Id. The more delay caused by unacceptable reasons, such as negligence or bad faith, the more likely the defendant’s speedy trial right was violated. Id.

Regarding factor (3), the Montana Supreme Court has stated: “[s]o long as the defendant asserts his right to a speedy trial by a motion to dismiss on speedy trial grounds filed prior to the time of trial, we conclude that the defendant has satisfied the third prong of the Barker [v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972)] test and that further analysis of that prong is not only unnecessary, but inappropriate.” Id. The duty to bring the defendant to trial is on the State, and a defendant is under no obligation to seek diligent prosecution of himself or help the State avoid dismissal for failure to timely prosecute him. Id.

Factor (4)’s prejudice is assessed “in light of the interests which the speedy trial right was designed to protect.” Id. Courts evaluate (a) the nature of the incarceration, (b) the amount of disruption the incarceration has caused in the accused’s life, and (c) the accused’s ability to present an effective defense. Id. Merely because an accused is incarcerated on other charges doesn’t preclude him from demonstrating prejudice. State v. Highpine, 15 P.3d 938 (Mont. 2000).

The only remedy for a speedy trial violation is dismissal of the charges. State v. Betterman, 342 P.3d 971 (Mont. 2015).

As to factor (1), in the instant case, the total length of the delay was 2,066 days; consequently, this factor weighed heavily in favor of Chambers, the Court stated.

Regarding factor (2), the State could have easily brought Chambers from the MSP for trial in Fergus County at any time within the five years, yet the State – without any justification – failed to do so. Similarly, factor (2) weighed heavily in favor of Chambers, according to the Court.

Chambers filed his Motion to Dismiss before the State re-initiated prosecution that resulted in his guilty plea – which was all that was required of him. As such, the Court determined that factor (3) weighed in Chambers’ favor.

Finally, the delay prejudiced Chambers because the Fergus charges and detainer affected his parole eligibility on the Stillwater sentences, and even though the Fergus sentences were suspended, he was denied an opportunity to have the sentences run concurrently with the Stillwater sentence. The Court further reasoned that “[a] pretrial delay of nearly five years without ANY reason advanced by the State for the delay is presumptively prejudicial and should weigh heavily against the State; not only for purposes of this analysis, but to deter the practice of delaying prosecution and effectively extending a sentence by filing a detainer when a defendant is serving multiple incarcerations.” (Emphasis original.)

Therefore, because all four factors weighed in Chambers’ favor, the Court concluded his right to a speedy trial was violated.

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Related legal case

State v. Chambers

 

 

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