No Right to Speedy Sentencing, Justices Rule

     (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial doesn’t apply once they have been found guilty at trial or have pleaded guilty to charges.
     The case centers on Brandon Thomas Betterman, who was charged with assaulting a family member, but failed to show up in a Montana court room in December 2011 to answer that charge.
     He eventually turned himself in, and on April 19, 2012, after being sentenced to five years, on the assault charge, he pleaded guilty to bail jumping.
     However, it wasn’t until some 14 months later that he was sentenced for that crime. Betterman appealed the sentence, saying the extended delay violated his right to a speedy trial, and left him in fairly dire straits.
     Betterman said the delay in his bail-jumping sentencing created a cross-jurisdictional nightmare in which although he was incarcerated, he was considered not to be serving his time on the assault charge because he was in a kind of legal limbo and was being held in a local detention center and not the state prison.
     He also says that while he was able to complete anger management therapy in the interim, he could not complete chemical dependency counseling or get a mental health assessment that was required before his release.
     His lawsuit asked either that the bail jumping charge be dismissed or that he at least be sentenced on the charge.
     The state argued Betterman waive his right to argue a speedy trial violation when he pleaded guilty, reasoning the guilty plea voided his right to trial.
     It also maintained that in any event, Betterman was responsible for much of the delay because his sentencing was repeatedly put off by motions he filed.
     A district court dismissed Betterman’s complaint, and the Montana Supreme Court affirmed.
     In the meantime, Betterman was sentenced to seven years in Montana State Prison, with four years suspended, on the bail jumping charge. The sentence was ordered consecutive to his five year sentence for assault.
     In its review of the case, the Montana Supreme Court acknowledge “a delayed sentencing raises different concerns than those raise by a delay in proceeding to trial.”
     In the end, it concluded the constitutional right to a speedy trial does not extend from conviction to sentencing.
     “However, a criminal defendant has a constitutional due process right to have sentence imported in a timely manner, without unreasonable delay,” the court wrote. “A criminal defendant in Montana also has a statutory right to be sentenced promptly … Because Betterman has failed to assert a statutory claim, we consider only his constitutional violation and make no determination regarding whether the same analysis would apply to review of a statutory claim of error.”
     “Although we find that the delay in Betterman’s sentencing was unacceptable, we find that Betterman’s prejudice from the delay was speculative and not substantial and demonstrable,” the court said.
     Attorneys for Betterman petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. They claimed said the Montana decision was but another example of the lower courts being squarely divided on the question of whether the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial Clause applies to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution.
     On Thursday, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Montana Supreme Court decision, holding that the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee doesn’t apply once a criminal defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty.
     “Adverse consequences of postconviction delay are outside the purview of the speedy trial clause. The sole remedy for a violation of the speedy trial right—dismissal of the charges—fits the preconviction focus of the clause, for it would be an unjustified windfall to remedy sentencing delay by vacating validly obtained convictions,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the 8-0 high court.
     “The prevalence of guilty pleas and the resulting scarcity of trials in today’s justice system do not bear on the pre­sumption-of-innocence protection at the heart of the speedy trial clause. Moreover, a central feature of contemporary sentencing—the preparation and review of a presentence investigation report—requires some amount of wholly reasonable presentencing delay,” she wrote.
     Ginsburg concluded by stating that the right to a speedy trial does not extend beyond conviction, because at that point the presumption of innocence is gone.
     Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion, in which Justice Samuel Alito joined.
     “We have never decided whether the due process clause creates an entitlement to a reasonably prompt sentencing hearing. Today’s opinion leaves us free to decide the proper analytical framework to analyze such claims if and when the issue is properly before us,” Thomas wrote. “The court thus correctly “express[es] no opinion on how [Betterman] might fare” under the due process clause.”
     In another concurring opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested using a test from the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision Barker v. Wingo — the same test applied to speedy trial violations — in a future analysis of due process during the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution
     “Under the Barker test, courts consider four factors—the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s asser­tion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant,” Sotomayor wrote. “It seems to me that the Barker factors capture many of the concerns posed in the sentencing delay context and that because the Barker test is flexible, it will allow courts to take account of any differences between trial and sentenc­ing delays.”