487 U. S. 326
June 24, 1988
The Speedy Trial act requires trial within 70 days of indictment. The day before that time limit expired, the suspect ran away. When he was finally recaptured, the government wasted two months before it brought him to trial again. The District Judge found that the 70 day limit had expired, and also found that the “lackadaisical” attitude of the government after recapturing him was responsible for the great delay. The judge dismissed the case with prejudice. The question was whether the judge had abused her discretion in so doing.
The Court ruled 6-3 that she had abused her discretion. Blackmun said that the Speedy Trial act allowed for dismissal without prejudice, and that to dismiss with prejudice, a judge had to weigh several factors. Among those were the seriousness of the charges, and the degree to which the defendant was responsible for the delay. The judge barely addressed these factors, and concentrated only on the “lackadaisical” actions of the government, which she didn’t even explain all that well. Blackmun resorted to legislative history to show that the various different factors really did need to be considered. Scalia joined everything except the legislative history part. In his concurring opinion he sounded his old notes about the importance of sticking to clear statutory text.
White concurred to say that a delay initially caused by the suspect absconding should almost always be dismissed without prejudice. Stevens, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. Dismissing with prejudice was a judgment call where reasonable judges could differ, and Stevens found no grounds to conclude that the judge had abused her discretion. He noted that the judge gave the runaway a harsh 5 year sentence for absconding, which was intended to compensate for the lost opportunity to prosecute the underlying charge. Allowing the case to be brought again risked essentially punishing him twice for the same drug charge. Stevens also said that the government’s delays were far more egregious than the “lackadaisical” label would leave you to believe.
I might be with Stevens on this one. The judge should not have dismissed with prejudice, but it probably wasn’t an abuse of discretion.