PA Supreme Court Sharpens Teeth of Speedy Trial Rule

The Right to a Speedy Trial in Pennsylvania

Today, in the case of Commonwealth v. Mills, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court significantly strengthened the speedy trial protections afforded to a criminal defendant under the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Pennsylvania Rules require prosecutors to bring a criminal defendant to trial within 365 days of the filing of the criminal complaint. In theory, if the prosecution fails to bring the defendant to trial within that time period, the entire case should be dismissed. Unfortunately, in 2012, the Rules of Criminal Procedure were amended to exclude significant portions of time from the calculation of when the 365 day period expires. However, the PA Supreme Court has now limited the effect of that amendment. 

Under the 2012 addition to the rules, "periods of delay at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth has failed to exercise due diligence shall be included in the computation of the time within which trial must commence. Any other periods of delay shall be excluded from the computation." In subsequent appellate court opinions interpreting the addition, many courts took the position that any time that was not directly the prosecution's fault would not count for Rule 600 purposes. For example, many judges began to rule that the delays due to scheduling backlogs in the courts could not be held against the Commonwealth. These decisions rendered Rule 600 essentially toothless as courts began to find the Commonwealth responsible only for continuances due to blatant negligence. 

Now, in the case of Commonwealth v. Mills, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has dramatically re-interpreted the amendment to Rule 600 such that the ordinary periods of time between court dates should count again. In Mills, the defendant was charged with Attempted Murder and related charges by Complaint on June 6, 2011. The case eventually proceeded to a scheduling conference in September, and it was listed for trial on April 2, 2012. Shortly before the trial date, the Commonwealth requested a continuance because 1) discovery was incomplete, 2) the Commonwealth had decided to seek DNA testing, and 3) the specially assigned prosecutor had scheduled a vacation. The trial court continued the case until September 20, 2012, which was well past the 365 day deadline of Rule 600. 

When the date for trial arrived, the defense filed a written Rule 600 Motion to Dismiss as required by the rule. The defense conceded that certain periods of time which had been attributable to defense continuance requests should not count for Rule 600 purposes, but the parties disagreed as to whether 174 days of time between the filing of the complaint and the status conference in which the prosecution requested the continuance of the trial should count. The trial court found that the time counted and dismissed the case.

On appeal, the Superior Court initially reversed the trial court's ruling and re-instated the prosecution, but the defendant appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court and dismissed the case. The Court's analysis focused on the meaning of the word "delay" as used in the statute. The Court agreed with the defendant that delay, as used in the rule, does not include the time attributable to the normal progression of a case. Instead, that time may count even if the Commonwealth has been diligent, and judges must use their discretion in distinguishing between delay attributable to the court and delay which should be allocated to a party.

Under the ruling, trial courts may still exclude certain periods of time which are solely due to the court's scheduling issues. Thus, where the prosecution is ready for trial but must wait due to a court calendar, the time may be considered "delay" for which the Commonwealth is not accountable. However, the Commonwealth could not argue in this case that it had been prepared for trial at the first listing. The Commonwealth was forced to concede that it requested a continuance due to missing discovery, the failure to obtain prompt DNA testing, and vacation schedules. Therefore, the previous time could not be considered delay attributable to the court, and the case must be dismissed.   

After decades of opinions weakening the protections of Rule 600, Mills shows a willingness on the Court's behalf to finally enforce the rule. Under Mills, the time leading up to trial may now count against the Commonwealth where the Commonwealth is not ready for trial at the first listing. Accordingly, the Court has added some real teeth to the rule, and it has done so even in this case where the charges were as serious as Attempted Murder. As a general rule, endless delay before trial can harm both the prosecution and the defense. The Commonwealth's case may fall apart as witnesses' memories become fuzzy, police officers retire, and evidence is lost, and defendants may spend significant periods of time in jail awaiting trial despite being presumed innocent. Defendants may also run into the same problems with defense witnesses, particularly in cases involving an alibi defense. Given the Court's opinion, Rule 600 should now provide the prosecution and the trial courts with a real incentive to bring a criminal defendant to trial within the one year requirement of the rule.

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Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers for Rule 600 Motions

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully represented thousands of clients. We have won serious cases on pre-trial motions such as Rule 600 Motions to Dismiss and have also obtained full acquittals at trial. We offer a free criminal defense strategy session to anyone who may be under investigation or facing charges. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with one of our defense attorneys.  

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600

Rule 600. Prompt Trial.

 (A)  COMMENCEMENT OF TRIAL; TIME FOR TRIAL

   (1)  For the purpose of this rule, trial shall be deemed to commence on the date the trial judge calls the case to trial, or the defendant tenders a plea of guilty or nolo contendere.

   (2)  Trial shall commence within the following time periods.

     (a)   Trial in a court case in which a written complaint is filed against the defendant shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the complaint is filed.

     (b)   Trial in a court case that is transferred from the juvenile court to the trial or criminal division shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the transfer order is filed.

     (c)   When a trial court has ordered that a defendant’s participation in the ARD program be terminated pursuant to Rule 318, trial shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the termination order is filed.

     (d)   When a trial court has granted a new trial and no appeal has been perfected, the new trial shall commence within 365 days from the date on which the trial court’s order is filed.

     (e)   When an appellate court has remanded a case to the trial court, the new trial shall commence within 365 days from the date of the written notice from the appellate court to the parties that the record was remanded.

 (B)  PRETRIAL INCARCERATION

 Except in cases in which the defendant is not entitled to release on bail as provided by law, no defendant shall be held in pretrial incarceration in excess of

   (1)  180 days from the date on which the complaint is filed; or

   (2)  180 days from the date on which the order is filed transferring a court case from the juvenile court to the trial or criminal division; or

   (3)  180 days from the date on which the order is filed terminating a defendant’s participation in the ARD program pursuant to Rule 318; or

   (4)  120 days from the date on which the order of the trial court is filed granting a new trial when no appeal has been perfected; or

   (5)  120 days from the date of the written notice from the appellate court to the parties that the record was remanded.

 (C)  COMPUTATION OF TIME

   (1)  For purposes of paragraph (A), periods of delay at any stage of the proceedings caused by the Commonwealth when the Commonwealth has failed to exercise due diligence shall be included in the computation of the time within which trial must commence. Any other periods of delay shall be excluded from the computation.

   (2)  For purposes of paragraph (B), only periods of delay caused by the defendant shall be excluded from the computation of the length of time of any pretrial incarceration. Any other periods of delay shall be included in the computation.

   (3)(a) When a judge or issuing authority grants or denies a continuance:

     (i)   the issuing authority shall record the identity of the party requesting the continuance and the reasons for granting or denying the continuance; and

     (ii)   the judge shall record the identity of the party requesting the continuance and the reasons for granting or denying the continuance. The judge also shall record to which party the period of delay caused by the continuance shall be attributed, and whether the time will be included in or excluded from the computation of the time within which trial must commence in accordance with this rule.

     (b)   The determination of the judge or issuing authority is subject to review as provided in paragraph (D)(3).

 (D)  REMEDIES

   (1)  When a defendant has not been brought to trial within the time periods set forth in paragraph (A), at any time before trial, the defendant’s attorney, or the defendant if unrepresented, may file a written motion requesting that the charges be dismissed with prejudice on the ground that this rule has been violated. A copy of the motion shall be served on the attorney for the Commonwealth concurrently with filing. The judge shall conduct a hearing on the motion.

   (2)  Except in cases in which the defendant is not entitled to release on bail as provided by law, when a defendant is held in pretrial incarceration beyond the time set forth in paragraph (B), at any time before trial, the defendant’s attorney, or the defendant if unrepresented, may file a written motion requesting that the defendant be released immediately on nominal bail subject to any nonmonetary conditions of bail imposed by the court as permitted by law. A copy of the motion shall be served on the attorney for the Commonwealth concurrently with filing. The judge shall conduct a hearing on the motion.

   (3)  Any requests for review of the determination in paragraph (C)(3) shall be raised in a motion or answer filed pursuant to paragraph (D)(1) or paragraph (D)(2).

 (E)  Nothing in this rule shall be construed to modify any time limit contained in any statute of limitations.