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Another Right Abolished by the Government’s COVID Lockdown: The Right to a Speedy Trial – Ryan McMaken (04/09/2020)

The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution says that all criminal defendants “shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” Many state constitutions also guarantee speedy trials, as do many state statutes.

Specifically, the Sixth Amendment states:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury…and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

In recent decades, this right has slowly grown more tenuous as the court system has grown increasingly overloaded in many areas by an ever increasing load of state and federal laws that bring grave penalties for the convicted. Defendants must wait long periods in some cases to get a court date.

As often happens with government mandates for permits, permissions, and hearings, court requirements that defendants stand trial are not met by the government with a willingness to actually provide the services necessary to allow compliance. That is, governments force us to submit to certain government procedures, but the government is unwilling to provide those procedures in a way that’s timely or accessible.

But now that the wheels of “justice” are grinding to a complete halt, thanks to COVID-19 related shutdowns, the accused may now be waiting for trial indefinitely. Some US immigration courts, for instance, have declared that they won’t be doing anything for a year:

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco extended an earlier one-month emergency declaration for federal courts in San Diego and Imperial counties by a year to April 17, 2021, according to an order posted on the circuit’s website Friday. The court’s judicial council cited public-health concerns and governments declaring states of emergency.

The order suspends the federal Speedy Trial Act, which means anyone facing criminal charges will have to wait longer to exercise their constitutional right to a jury trial—including defendants already in custody. In San Diego and Imperial counties, a significant share of those federal cases involves immigration, drugs and U.S. Customs offenses, the council said.

The state of Kansas is denying speedy-trial rights at the whims of a single judge:

Less than two weeks ago, cases in Douglas County District Court were being set for trials, and other hearings delayed because some trials were already scheduled. But as state and local officials have gradually restricted further how many people can be in one place at one time in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the courts can’t function normally.

Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday signed into law a bill that expands the authority of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to issue orders “to extend or suspend any deadlines or time limitations established by statute when the chief justice determines such action is necessary to secure the health and safety of court users, staff and judicial officers.”

North Carolina courts are closed.

In Colorado, a legislator demands the legislature close the speedy-trial “loophole.” By “loophole” he means the law that insists that the government respect a defendant’s rights or set him free.

But, as with the natural rights protected by other articles of the Bill or Rights—and similar texts found in state constitutions—there is no clause at the end which says “null and void in case of virus.”

Naturally for defendants who are in jail awaiting trial—people who are still presumed innocent, mind you—long delays can destroy them both personally and financially. Delays can ruin careers and ruin marriages. They alienate children from parents. They impact the defendant’s health.

There is a reason, of course, that the right to a speedy trial—which goes back to clauses 39 and 40 of the Magna Carta—exists. Delaying justice is a common tactic of governments that really can’t be bothered with respecting the rights of the accused. But as with so many liberties, this one is apparently to be ignored when some governors decide it to be so.