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The Sixth Amendment and the right to a speedy trial

The rights of criminal defendants in Washington state and around the country are protected by the U.S. Constitution, and the Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to an attorney, the right to confront witnesses who testify against them and the right to a speedy trial before an impartial jury. The speedy trial provision of the amendment guarantees that criminal cases should be resolved within a reasonable amount of time, but what is and what is not a reasonable delay has been the subject of contentious legal debate.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in 1972. In their ruling, the justices laid out a four-step test that can be applied on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not a defendant's right to a speedy trial has been violated. When faced with these decisions, judges must now consider the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, whether or not the defendant agreed to the delay and how prejudicial the delay was to the defendant.

The Sixth Amendment right to a trial before an impartial jury is also vague. The Constitution does not state how many members a jury should have, and it does not require jury verdicts to be unanimous. While juries consist of 12 members in almost all states, they can be made up of six or fewer people in Washington when cases are heard in district court. However, trials for more serious crimes in Washington are heard in superior courts before 12 member juries.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to have criminal charges dismissed when the constitutional rights of their clients may have been violated. These arguments could be made when criminal defendants have been denied legal representation, interviewed under duress or have been charged with a crime that they have already been acquitted of.

Source: Washington Courts, "Trial Process", accessed on June 7, 2017

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