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Supreme Court: your right to a "speedy trial" ends when you're declared guilty

Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

The Supreme Court unanimously decided that once a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty to a crime, the "speedy" part of the constitutional Sixth Amendment's "right to a speedy and public trial" no longer applies.

"Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution? That is the sole question this case presents. We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered in the Court's opinion.

The case, Betterman v. Montana, specifically referred to Brandon Thomas Betterman, who was given his seven-year prison sentence 14 months after he initially pleaded guilty to felony bail jumping in a Montana state court. He took the case to Montana's Supreme Court, which ruled that sentencing was not part of the "trial" in a "speedy trial" – a ruling the Supreme Court upheld Thursday.

Criminal proceedings take place in three parts: an investigation prior to arrest, a charge and trial where the accused is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and finally, after a conviction, a sentencing. The Court ruled that the language in all three of these stages – "accused," "convicted," "trial," and "sentencing"– have distinctly separate protections.

"The Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause homes in on the second period: from arrest or indictment through conviction. The constitutional right, our precedent holds, does not attach until this phase begins, that is, when a defendant is arrested or formally accused. Today we hold that the right detaches upon conviction, when this second stage ends," the Court's opinion said.

The Sixth Amendment does not protect the accused during sentencing, but the Constitution may have other protections

In constitutional cases like these, as Rory Little wrote for SCOTUSblog, it is in the high court's benefit to provide as much specificity as possible:

The Supreme Court takes cases on discrete constitutional topics so infrequently, and in so few cases, that an essential part of its role is to provide as much guidance as possible to assist lower state and federal courts in deciding, and thousands of lawyers in litigating, the thousands of cases they collectively confront on the topic every year.

In Betterman v. Montana, a cut-and-dried Sixth Amendment case with a simple question, the Supreme Court took the opportunity to raise – but not rule on – additional questions about protections afforded under separate due process clauses. While "the speedy trial right — like other similarly aimed measures — loses force upon conviction," Betterman may have had "other recourse" under the due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments, the opinion reads.

Both the Fifth Amendment, which grants the right of a grand jury and protect against double jeopardy and self-incrimination, and the 14th Amendment, which protects the rights of citizens more broadly, require a "due process of law" in any proceeding that could deny a citizen "life, liberty, or property."

However, because Betterman brought forward a Sixth Amendment case, the Court had "no reason to consider today the appropriate test for such a Due Process Clause challenge."

In concurring with the Court's decision however, Justice Sonia Sotomayor made a point to note that Betterman was not wrong to question inordinately long sentencing times – he just argued the wrong case.

"I write separately to emphasize that the question is an open one," Sotomayor wrote.