The right to speedy trial derives from Part I, Article 14 of the New Hampshire Constitution and the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Due Process is governed by Part I, Article 15 of the New Hampshire Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
What about in a time of crisis? Is there still a right to a speedy trial when there is a pandemic that has closed schools, restaurants, business and where stay at home orders are routine?
The NH State Courts stopped jury trials and criminal cases on March 13, 2020. What will happen to citizens accused of crimes that are in custody, pending a trial? The NH Court has issued a blanket statement that all deadlines are stopped during the closure of the courts.
The answer is more complicated than a simple blanket rule that tolls deadlines. Surely jurors should not be forced to deliberate in a small room for hours even days. Citizens accused of crime should also not have their liberty taken away without a right to a fair public trial by an imparial jury.
Broad proclamations by courts, while certainly understandable, fail to engage in the individualized speedy trial assessment that the Courts have suggested that the Constitution requires, and that Congress passed legislation to protect.
“‘[A]pplicable statutes of limitations protect against the prosecution’s bringing stale criminal charges against [a] defendant.’” The starting point for determining whether the statute of limitations bars prosecution is RSA 625:8. The general rule is that the State has six years to prosecute a felony, one year to prosecute a misdemeanor, and three months to prosecute a violation, RSA 625:8, I (a)-(d), but the statute contains numerous exceptions.
The State generally satisfies the statute of limitations if it files a charge or issues a warrant between the time when the limitations period began, and the time when RSA 625:8 dictates it is supposed to end.
The Superior Court speedy trial policy incorporates a four-part speedy trial analysis of Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972): (1) the length of the delay; (2) the reason for the delay; (3) the defendant’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial; and, (4) the prejudice to the defendant caused by the delay.
The starting point in the speedy trial analysis is when the defendant is arrested or charged. Humphrey v. Cunningham, 133 N.H. 727, 734 (1990). The Barker four factors are not equally weighted. The Court places “substantial emphasis” on the last two factors, the defendant’s assertion of his speedy trial rights, and prejudice. Brooks, 162 N.H. at 582; Locke, 149 N.H. at 8.
Regarding the final factor, the Court places the burden on the defendant to show “actual prejudice” in order to prevail on a speedy trial claim. This includes “an oppressive pretrial incarceration, anxiety, or an impaired defense.” Confinement alone is not enough, even if the defendant has never previously been confined.
“[T]he most serious indication of prejudice” is that “the delay impaired [the] defense,” id., e.g., because essential witnesses or evidence became unavailable over time.