Violation of Speedy Trial Right Results in Dismissal of Indictment

Nonlawyers often talk about criminal defense work as though it involves nothing more than clients "getting off on technicalities." If only it were that easy. In reality, these "technicalities" are a defendant's constitutional rights, and prevailing in a case solely based on a violation of constitutional rights usually means the government transgressed the right in a serious way. The case of Ohio v. Rentas provides an example of how difficult it can be to succeed on constitutional arguments. One constitutional right of the accused is the right to a speedy trial. The government cannot indict someone and allow them to languish forever without a trial. A delay of a year or more is "presumptively prejudicial" to a defendant, assuming the delay was not caused by the defendant attempting to elude capture. In Rentas, there was a delay by the government of forty years. Though that would seem to be an open and shut constitutional violation, the trial court initially rejected the argument, and it took an appellate court nineteen pages to explain why dismissal of the indictment was appropriate.


The defendant was indicted in 1981 for an alleged rape, but he was not arrested until 2020. The defendant moved to dismiss the indictment on grounds that the state violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The state argued that the approximately forty-year delay did not violate the defendant's rights and that any delay was the defendant's fault. Initially, the trial court sided with the government. But, the defendant tried again and, this time, the trial court heard evidence about the four-decade delay.

That evidence consisted primarily of testimony by a current investigator from the state. His testimony showed that the original police file was destroyed and the original detective did not remember the case. The hospital that treated the alleged victim closed and the medical records were lost. The original investigators incorrectly arrested the defendant's brother, who had nothing to do with the alleged crime. They then prepared a warrant that incorporated information describing the brother rather than the defendant. The police then did nothing with the case for fifteen years. In 1996, the police made another arrest: they incorrectly arrested the brother a second time, who spent months in police custody. Although the government claimed that the defendant was evading capture, no evidence supported that argument. The current investigator testified that he easily found the defendant with "a simple search on social media via Facebook and located Rentas in Puerto Rico," where, from all accounts, he was living openly. The defendant's son testified that his father had been working for a local television station for fifteen years and that the defendant's mother knew where he was living at all times, but apparently no one asked her.

The trial court reversed course from its initial ruling and dismissed the indictment, concluding that the amount of missing or destroyed evidence prejudiced the defendant and that the delay in prosecuting him violated his rights. The government appealed, and the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.


Courts balance four factors in deciding whether there has been a violation of a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial: "(1) the length of the delay; (2) the reason for the delay; (3) the defendant's assertion of his speedy trial right; and (4) prejudice to the defendant."

The government conceded that a roughly forty-year delay is presumptively prejudicial. With respect to the reason for the delay, the Court explained that a "deliberate delay by the government weighs heavily against the state," but negligent conduct by the government is "a neutral reason" and "weighs less heavily." The second factor cuts against the defendant when he or she "shares any responsibility for the delay." The government argued that the delay really was the defendant's fault, because he supposedly "did not live his life 'open' enough to allow the police to find him." The government made that argument even in the face of all the evidence from the hearing, including decades of unaccounted-for time where the police were not looking for the defendant and the fact that the current investigator readily found him on Facebook. The Court described this course of conduct as a "neutral reason that weighs against the state, but not as heavily," because it was not "deliberate" and, in the Court's view, did not confer on the state "any tactical advantage in its prosecution."

After finding the defendant timely asserted his rights, the Court examined the prejudice to the defendant. Although none of the four factors in the speedy-trial-rights analysis is dispositive, prejudice to the defendant perhaps is the most important, because it impacts three different interests that the constitutional right "was designed to protect." "The three interests are: (i) to prevent oppressive pretrial incarceration; (ii) to minimize anxiety and concern of the accused; and (iii) to limit the possibility that the defense will be impaired." The final interest "is the greatest concern because it skews the fairness of the entire system." In reviewing the record, the Court found that the extensive amount of "missing or destroyed evidence" - which included the hospital records, the police file, and inconsistent witness statements, including by now-deceased individuals - prejudiced the defendant.


The Rentas case shows how vigorously the government contests constitutional arguments and how forgiving the law is of government negligence. Decades of doing nothing and two arrests of the wrong person are facts described as a "neutral reason" for a forty-year delay. The Court stated that "the state gained no tactical advantage by its own dilatory conduct," but then went on to find that the defendant was prejudiced by the missing evidence - which went missing as the unsurprising result of the many, many years of delay.

The Rentas decision provides a good example of a violation of the constitutional right to a speedy trial. The decision also demonstrates how difficult it is to prevail on "technicalities," i.e., a defendant's constitutional rights. After all, the trial court initially denied the defendant's motion before admirably going on to hear the evidence and rule in the defendant's favor.