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Maine Supreme Judicial Court Announces Clarification of Test for Violation of Right to Speedy Trial Under Maine Constitu-tion

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine concluded a post-conviction review (“PCR”) court misconstrued aspects of relevant law concerning a claim that counsel’s failure to assert the right to a speedy trial constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal brought by Dennis F. Winchester. He was jailed on two cases, one of which was dismissed and the other resulted in a sentence of five years. While in jail, Winchester was charged in six other cases. After he was found guilty in one of those cases, he pleaded nolo contendre to the five other cases. All of them primarily involving burglaries and thefts that were filed in 2014 and 2015.

Winchester filed PCR petitions in 2019, alleging violations of his speedy trial rights. The PCR court denied the petition, basing its decision on the federal test articulated in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972). The Maine Supreme Judicial Court granted Winchester a certificate of probable cause regarding his ineffective assistance of counsel claims against two of his three attorneys.

The Court began its analysis by stating “the key to assessing the merits of Winchester’s petitions is determining whether he had meritorious grounds to move to dismiss the indictments based on his right to speedy trial. If so, and if no reasonable litigation strategy caused his counsel’s pursuit or continuance of delay, then Winchester suffered a constitutional violation, and the sole remedy is the dismissal of the indictments.”

Under the Maine Constitution, art. I, § 6, courts utilize a flexible balancing test to determine whether the right to a speedy trial has been violated, the Court stated. See State v. Moore, 290 A.3d 533 (Me. 2023). However, the Court observed that its precedent on the test for a speedy trial violation under the state Constitution is currently “indeterminate” and that art. I, § 6 is “nonspecific.” It states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have a right … [t]o have a speedy, public and impartial trial….” Consequently, the Court stated that it “must go beyond the plain language” of the provision “to divine the test that measures whether a violation of the right to a speedy trial has occurred.” The Court proceeded to engage in a lengthy examination of the history of the provision.

One of the motivating factors in Maine’s separation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was long delays in obtaining trials. Article I, § 6 was derived from that frustration, according to the Court. Since Maine became a state, the right to a speedy trial has been protected by statute or by a rule of criminal procedure. The Court determined that sociological considerations favor a dynamic construction of Art. I, § 6. That is, the state Constitution is “a live and flexible instrument fully capable of meeting and serving the imperative needs of society in a changing world.” Opinion of the Justices, 231 A.2d 431 (Me. 1967). A fundamental principle recognized by the Supreme Judicial Court is that the constitutional standard for a speedy trial “is flexible, and the application of the standard is dependent on the unique circumstances of each case.”

The Court then announced a flexible, multi-factor test for determining whether there is a speedy trial violation under the state Constitution, which includes the following relevant factors: (1) length of the delay, (2) reasons for the delay, (3) assertion of the right, and (4) prejudice. [See full opinion for a detailed discussion of each factor.] The Court noted that the four factors are the same as the factors examined under the Sixth Amendment. See Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972). Nevertheless, the Court instructed that the two test are “similar but not identical.” For example, failure to assert one’s right to a speedy trial “can be determinative under the Maine Constitution but not under the” U.S. Constitution. See State v. Kopelow, 138 A. 625 (Me. 1927); Barker. In announcing the state test, the Court rejected any bright-line rules, explaining: “Article I, § 6 is not designed for specific, bright-line rules, and was instead intended to be sufficiently flexible as to apply as circumstances change.”

The Court then applied the new test to the present case. It began by applying the first factor, i.e., length of the delays. When looking at Winchester’s petitions, the Court found the six charges involve different periods of delay ranging from 33 to 42 months. The Court said each case must be analyzed on its own. The PCR court determined the delays were not so substantial as to cause a per se violation of the right to a speedy trial. The Court, however, found the delays were long enough to “warrant consideration of the three remaining factors in the balancing process.”

Turning to the second factor, i.e., reasons for the delay, the Court concluded that they require further inquiry on remand. It stated delays caused by an accused should not count against the State. But where other delays – both those caused by the State and those attributable to court delays and backlogs – should be counted against the State.

Three months after his second attorney was appointed, a motion to suppress was filed by counsel in each of the six cases. The PCR court noted it did “not know why these motions took 15 months to be resolved and agree[d] that [it] seems excessive.” It concluded the unexplained delay could not be attributed to the State.

That conclusion, the Court said, constituted error. “It is primarily because the PCR court did not give any weight to what it determined was the most significant portion of the overall delay that we vacate and remand,” the Court explained. “On remand, the court should consider whether any portion of the delay caused by the motions to dismiss was attributable to counsel’s reasonable defense strategy.”

Likewise, the PCR court may consider the total delay caused by Winchester’s counsel’s reasonable strategies. One delay may be counsel’s strategy to receive independent analysis of the State’s DNA evidence and to “try and essentially get all of the State’s evidence thrown out on all of [the] cases.” The PCR court may also reconsider its evaluation of the delay caused by Winchester’s various changes in counsel.

As to the third factor – whether Winchester personally attempted to assert his right to a speedy trial – the PCR court determined that “no request for speedy trial was made.” The record showed, however, Winchester was erroneously told by the clerk’s office that his first attorney had waived that right. Winchester testified that he told his attorneys to advance that right, and that testimony was unrefuted. Findings need be made on this factor in remand, the Court stated, because there is evidence in the record that Winchester “consistently attempted to have his appointed counsel assert his right to a speedy trial.”

Finally, regarding the fourth factor – prejudice – the Court faulted the PCR court’s prejudice analysis for focusing heavily on the length of the delays and the reasons for them, which essentially “subsumed” the prejudice analysis into the examination of the other factors. The Court stated that “Winchester’s pretrial incarceration must be closely scrutinized on remand” and concluded that under the Maine test: “because incarceration can impede the accused’s ability to prepare a defense and cooperate with counsel, Winchester’s responsibility for his incarceration diminishes but does not eliminate its weight in the analysis of prejudice.

Thus, the Court concluded that the PCR court engaged in faulty analysis in rejecting Winchester’s speedy trial claim.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the PCR court’s judgment and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Winchester v. State, 291 A.3d 707 (Me. 2023).   

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Winchester v. State



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