The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Barbour, holding that a defendant does not waive the speedy trial protections of Rule 600 by failing to appear for court without cause after the 365-day period for bringing a defendant to trial has already expired. Barbour is the second recent pro-defense decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in recent months, suggesting that the Court has finally recognized that recent decisions of the Superior Court had completely eviscerated the rule’s protections and allowed defendants to languish in prison for years without trials through no fault of their own.
The Issues in Commonwealth v. Barbour
The issue in Barbour was whether a defendant’s unexcused failure to appear for court waives the protections of Rule 600 even where the defendant’s 600 rights were already violated prior to the date on which the defendant failed to appear. As a general rule, Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure requires the Commonwealth to bring a criminal defendant to trial within 365 days of the filing of the complaint. If the Commonwealth fails to bring the defendant to trial within that time period, then the case should be dismissed with prejudice, meaning the Commonwealth cannot re-file the charges.
In theory, the rule seems simple. In practice, it is much more complicated for a number of reasons. First, time between court dates for which the defendant is responsible for the delay do not count towards the 365-day calculation. This means that if the defendant requests a continuance of a hearing, then the time until the next hearing does not count for Rule 600 purposes.
Second, over the years, the Superior Court has created all sorts of absurd exceptions for why time does not count against the Commonwealth even when it’s the Commonwealth’s fault that that the case was continued. For example, trial courts routinely fail to count time during which the prosecutor was “duly diligent” but nonetheless could not proceed to trial on a given date. These types of continuances which do not count against the Commonwealth could include periods of time during which the defendant was not brought to court from custody or police officers were sick or injured on duty, or even where the prosecution simply needed more time to investigate the case and prepare for trial. Additionally, where the prosecution is ready to proceed but the trial judge is busy hearing a different case, the time will often be excluded from the Rule 600 calculation.
Recent years have shown a marked trend of appellate courts forgiving every possible delay because of the reluctance to dismiss serious criminal charges based on what many would view as a technicality. However, the failure to protect a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has real costs to both the defense and the prosecution. When a defendant remains in jail waiting for trial for a year or more, the defendant could lose his or her job, home, and contact with his or her family all while presumed innocent.
Likewise, the prosecution’s case generally does not get better with age; witnesses may move out of the jurisdiction or forget key details about the incident, police officers may retire or get indicted, and prosecutors and detectives may lose evidence. Thus, Rule 600 really protects both sides. It protects the accused, who should not have to deal with the threat of criminal charges or pre-trial incarceration for lengthy periods of time, and it protects the prosecution, who benefits from proceeding to trial in a reasonably prompt manner. After years of decisions excusing endless delay from the courts and prosecutors, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has finally begun to enforce the protections of Rule 600.
In the prior cases of Commonwealth v. Steltz and Commonwealth v. Brock, the Supreme Court held that a defendant forever waives the protections of 600 by failing to appear for court as required. The rationale behind those decisions was that if a defendant fails to appear and obtains a bench warrant, then the defendant may then be brought to trial at the prosecution’s convenience.
In this case, the defendant obtained a bench warrant for failure to appear back in 2004. In 2014, the defendant was arrested on the bench warrant, and the court scheduled a new trial date. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to dismiss the charges pursuant to Rule 600. The defendant argued that this case was different from Steltzand Brock because in those cases, the defendants bench warranted prior to the expiration of the 365-day period. Here, however, the defendant’s bench warrant was issued after the Commonwealth had already failed to bring him to trial within 365 days. Thus, the defendant argued that he should not be able to waive Rule 600 where the Commonwealth had already violated the rule.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed. It re-affirmed the rule of Brock and Steltz that a bench warrant prior to the expiration of the 365-day period waives Rule 600, but it also held that where the Commonwealth has already violated Rule 600 prior to the bench warrant, the defendant’s unexcused absence at trial does not waive the protections of the rule. This is a good, but narrow, decision which will make the waiver doctrine of Steltz and Brock slightly less punishing for those who have already had their rights violated.
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