March 08, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Bloate v. United States

On March 8, the Supreme Court decided Bloate v. United States, No. 08-728, holding that the time granted to a criminal defendant to prepare pretrial motions is not automatically excluded from the Speedy Trial Act's requirement that the defendant be brought to trial within 70 days after indictment or initial appearance, but it may be excluded if the trial court specifically finds that justice would be better served by doing so.

The Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3161 et seq., orders that a criminal defendant's trial must begin within 70 days after the defendant is charged or makes an initial appearance in court, on pain of dismissal of the charges. Some delays, however, are excluded from the calculation. Delay that results from "proceedings concerning the defendant" is automatically excluded. Other delay "resulting from a continuance" granted by the court may be excluded if the court finds that "the ends of justice served by taking such action outweigh the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial."

After defendant Bloate was indicted on federal firearms and drug-possession charges, a trial date was set within the 70-day limit. The court set a deadline for filing pretrial motions; Bloate first asked that this deadline be extended for several weeks, but eventually he waived his right to file motions at all. Several additional delays were incurred, often at Bloate's instigation. On the 179th day after his indictment, Bloate moved to dismiss the charges against him for failure to comply with the Speedy Trial Act. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the time between the original deadline for filing pretrial motions and the date on which Bloate's waiver of the right to file motions was accepted was automatically excluded from the 70-day deadline. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that although a delay to prepare pretrial motions may be excluded from the 70-day deadline, it is not automatically excluded. The statute automatically excludes delay relating to pretrial motions only from the date when the motion is filed until the motion is disposed of. But this provision does not apply to the time while the motion is being prepared, but before it has been filed. A trial has the discretion to exclude motion-preparation time from the deadline, but it must find, on the record, that "the ends of justice served by taking such action outweighs the best interest of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial." The Court rejected the assertion that its strict reading of the statute could confer a "windfall" on the defendant, noting that a trial court can, in appropriate situations, dismiss criminal charges without prejudice, which allows them to be reinstituted.

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Ginsburg also filed a concurring opinion. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Breyer joined.

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