(CN) - The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether the Sixth Amendment's speedy trial clause applies to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution.
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."
"A delay in sentencing 'may leave the defendant, as well as the victim, in limbo concerning the consequences of conviction. It postpone the commitment of the defendant to corrections facilities, may have a detrimental effect on rehabilitation, and suspends the appellate review of error.'"
"We believe these concerns are compelling, but nevertheless ill-suited for remediation through the constitutional right to speedy trial," the ruling continued. "We realize that a criminal prosecution encompasses sentencing and that the prosecution does not terminate until sentence is imposed. However, this proposition has no bearing on when a trial terminates."
But as the state Supreme Court moved through the case, it because ever more of a thicket.
"Significantly, if we were to extend the constitutional right to a speedy trial to include sentencing, there would be the question of what remedy to impose when the delay occurred subsequent to conviction. The only remedy available for a constitutional speedy trial violation is the dismissal of the charges," the court said.
What troubled the state jurists was that this outcome "contrasts with the remedy for a sentencing error, which rejects the doctrine that a prisoner 'whose guilt has been established, by a regular verdict, is to escape punishment altogether , because the court committed an error in passing sentence.'"
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.
In petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari, attorneys for Betterman 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.
As it their custom, the justices did not explained why they are taking up the case.
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