MANHATTAN (CN) - Though "deeply troubled" by trial delays, a 2nd Circuit panel declined to find that prosecutors violated the due-process rights of a 39-year-old father of two charged with a drug offense.
The judges did, however, set a Feb. 1, 2013 deadline to bring the man to trial or let him apply for bail.
Antonio Briggs, a clothing store-owner from Buffalo, N.Y., waited more than two years in a federal prison to fight charges that he conspired with 20 others to sell marijuana, cocaine, heroin, MDMA, oxycodone and other drugs.
Prosecutors justified the delays on the large number of defendants filing "repeated motions and abundant discovery."
Calling the question a "close call," Circuit Judges Guido Calabresi and Susan Carney reluctantly found in the prosecutors' favor Friday.
"We are disturbed by Briggs's long detention," Calabresi wrote for the panel. "But we conclude, after weighing the relevant factors, that Briggs's detention does not, at this time, violate due process."
A third judge had been excused due to illness.
Ruling in his absence, his colleagues based their 9-page holding, in part, on a precedent set by the case of Wadih El-Hage, an al-Qaida member convicted for his role in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
In 2000, the circuit called El-Hage's two-and-a-half year pre-trial confinement "extraordinary, and justified only by the unprecedented scope of violence that the conspiracy of which defendant was allegedly a part inflicted on innocent victims, by the extraordinarily complex and difficult preparation needed to present this case, and, more particularly, because the lengthy delay in bringing defendant to trial may not be laid at the government's doorstep."
Briggs, on the other hand, emphasized that his nonviolent history combined with his business and family ties put him in a far different category.
A federal judge dismissed this argument based on his two prior felony convictions for possessing and selling cocaine.
The 2nd Circuit ultimately deferred to this reasoning.
"We caution, however, that the difficulties faced by the prosecution in a large and complex case do not justify the indefinite detention of the defendants," the order states. "The realities of limited resources and the interests of efficiency may lead us to uphold exercises of prosecutorial discretion, but they do not suffice to excuse failures of prosecutorial diligence. When the government decides to prosecute a case of considerable complexity and scope, it must still pursue that case with promptness and energy. Due process does not slumber because cases are complex."
Brigg's lawyer, Joel Daniels, told Courthouse News he was "pleased with the court's decision" because the judges set a deadline and offered tough words in defense of speedy trial rights.
He added that he believed that the judges stopped short of finding a violation out of reluctance to create a "bright line" date that triggers a sanction.
"What's happening in the system today is that the government brings these multi-defendant drug cases, and many nonviolent defendants stay in jail as the lead up to trial grinds on," Daniels said.
He said that a similar case, U.S. v. Hill, involved the same type of delay.
"That's the problem with these federal detention laws," Daniels said. "Once they detain you, you're in trouble. It's very hard to get out."
If convicted, Briggs faces up to 10 years in prison.
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