(CN) – A convicted felon might be entitled to have the charges against him dismissed because he wasn’t put on trial soon enough, the Supreme Court ruled Monday. The justices voted 7-2 that pretrial preparation time is not automatically excluded from the 70-day deadline from indictment to trial.
The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 requires a criminal defendant’s trial to begin within 70 days of his indictment or initial appearance, whichever is later.
In August 2006, Taylor James Bloate was indicted on drug and gun charges.
He asked for an extension on the Sept. 7 deadline to file pretrial motions, and the district court gave him until Sept. 25.
When the deadline arrived, he told the court that he didn’t wish to file any pretrial motions. A magistrate judge found this waiver to be “voluntary and intelligent” on Oct. 4.
Over the next three months, Bloate’s trial was repeatedly delayed for various reasons.
He moved to dismiss the indictment on Feb. 19, 2007 – 179 days after he was first charged – on the basis that prosecutors missed the 70-day trial window.
In denying the motion, the district court excluded the period from Sept. 7 through Oct. 4 as “within the extension of time granted to file pretrial motions.”
Bloate was found guilty on both counts and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
He appealed, but the 8th Circuit in St. Louis upheld the lower court’s rationale for excluding the pretrial preparation time from the 70-day limit.
Seven other federal appeals courts have endorsed this interpretation, while two sister circuits have found the opposite: that pretrial preparation time can be counted toward the 70-day window.
The high court took up the case to resolve this division.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the 28-day period at issue “is not automatically excludable.”
The court reversed and remanded, but noted that its ruling didn’t address “whether any other exclusion would apply to all or part of the 28-day period.”
Justice Samuel Alito dissented, saying the majority’s decision fosters a “strange result.”
“Under the court’s interpretation, petitioner may be entitled to dismissal of the charges against him because his attorney persuaded a magistrate judge to give the defense additional time to prepare pretrial motions and thus delayed the commencement of his trial,” Alito wrote.
Justice Stephen Breyer joined the dissenting opinion.