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Friday, June 09, 2006

Zedner: Speedy Trial Violation Can't be Harmless

In Zedner v. U.S., No. 05-5992 (June 5, 2006), the Supreme Court held that a defendant cannot prospectively waive the application of the Speedy Trial Act.
At the district court’s suggestion, the defendant agreed to waive the application of the Speedy Trial Act "for all time." After a number of delays, Zedner, who had been indicted in April 1996, was not tried until 2003.
The Court noted that the Speedy Trial Act generally requires a trial to commence within 70 days of indictment, with a number of reasons justifying extension of this deadline. But none of these exclusions cover a defendant’s waiver of the Act’s application. The Court noted that it might make sense to permit such waivers if the defendant’s right to a speedy trial were the only consideration in the Act. However, the Act also had in mind the public interest in prompt trials.
The Court recognized that the Act permitted a retrospective waiver of delays, but held that this did not cover prospective waivers. The public interest in avoid delays is not served by prospective waivers. Moreover, the prosecution cannot know whether a defendant will agree to a retrospective waiver, so retrospective waivers keep the pressure on the prosecution to prosecute the case promptly in a way that retrospective waivers do not.
The Court held that estoppel did not bar the defendant from seeking dismissal of the indictment on Speedy Trial grounds notwithstanding his inconsistent waiver. First, estoppel cannot enforce a waiver promise, since this would undercut the Act’s "no-waiver" policy. Second, the district court, not the defendant, requested the waiver. Third, seeking a continuance was not inconsistent with seeking dismissal of the case.
Finally, the Court noted that the Act requires express findings contemporaneously as to why the case should be continued. Therefore these findings could not be supplied on remand. The Court noted that harmless error does not apply to review of Speedy Trial violations, because harmless error review would undercut the 70-day rule and the other rules limiting the grounds for delay. Finding a Speedy Trial violation in Zedner’s case, the Court remanded the case for a determination whether dismissal should be with or without prejudice.