In a rare reversal of a district court's speedy trial decision, the Third Circuit in United States v. Battis, 08-2949 (3d Cir. December 14, 2009), concluded that the government's intentional 45 month delay in bringing the defendant to trial violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The Court reversed the district court's judgment denying defendant's speedy trial motion and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the indictment and vacate the defendant's conviction.
The case arose out of a bar fight in Philadelphia. The defendant, Germaine Battis, was arrested by Philadelphia police for, among other things, illegally possessing a firearm. He was arraigned in state court on January 20, 2004. One month later, on February 24, 2004, Battis was indicted in federal court for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. A federal bench warrant was issued as a detainer because Battis was in state custody, but the detainer was never formally filed. Battis was not arraigned in federal court until November 2, 2006. In the interim, state officials were waiting for the federal government to proceed with its case, while federal prosecutors intentionally delayed prosecution in order for the state court case to proceed against Battis. It was not until September 18, 2006, when the state court dismissed the state charges against Battis on speedy trial grounds, that federal prosecutors finally began to proceed with their case.
Battis filed a motion to dismiss the federal case on speedy trial ground, but the motion was denied by the district court. His case proceeded to trial and he was ultimately convicted of being a felon-in-possession. On June 23, 2008, he was sentenced to 120 months imprisonment. On appeal, the Third Circuit weighed the four Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972) constitutional speedy trial factors anew and determined that Battis's constitutional speedy trial rights had been violated. First, the Court calculated the length of the delay as 45 months, measured from the date of the federal indictment through the beginning of the trial. The Court affirmatively ruled that a defendant's arrest on related state charges does not trigger the speedy trial protection for a subsequent federal charge. The length of this delay was more than sufficient to trigger speedy trial protection. Second, the reason for the delay, weighed against the government. The Court found that the government’s justification, deference to the state’s interest in prosecution, failed in this case because while an "initial delay to allow the state to proceed may have been valid, there came a time when the federal Government should have taken some action to proceed in light of the state authorities' inaction."
The third factor, whether defendant asserted his speedy trial right, weighed in the defendant’s favor. The Court noted that Battis notified authorities on four occasions that he wanted his federal case to proceed, and addressed three requests for a speedy trial to the court. Notably, federal counsel made a request within weeks of being appointed. Finally, the Court held that "prejudice will be presumed when there is a forty-five-month delay in bringing a defendant to trial, even when it could be argued that only thirty-five months of that delay is attributable to the Government" and that in this case the government was not able to rebut this presumption. Battis's preparation for the state case during the delay did not alleviate any prejudice even though the charges in the state case were based on essentially the same facts as the federal charges, as this did not address the reason for presuming prejudice-that the delay undermines the basic reliability of the trial and the concerns of Battis's counsel in the two cases, and their resulting investigative efforts, would necessarily have been different. Moreover, the threat to the reliability of a trial is especially high where, as here, the delay results in the defendant's not being appointed counsel for three years after indictment.
The Court thus concluded that Battis was presumptively prejudiced by the delay, that all four factors of the Barker test weighed against the government, and that Battis was unconstitutionally deprived of his right to a speedy trial.
Congratulations to the Defender Association of Philadelphia's Federal Court Division on this tremendous win!