Articles Posted in Sixth Amendment

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Most people have a general understanding that they have a Constitutional right to a “speedy trial.”  What does that really mean, and how can it be utilized to help someone charged with a criminal case? Both the U.S. and Texas constitutions provide a speedy trial right.  Meaning that the Government, whether that be the State of Texas or the Federal Government, must afford you a trial within a certain period of time or your right to a speedy trial has been violated.  If your constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated, the law requires that the case against you be dismissed.

As you see, the violation of your right to a speedy trial is a serious matter that my lead to the dismissal of charges against you.  When the Court is considering whether your right to a speedy trial has been violated, the Court considers 1) the length of the delay, 2) the reason of the delay 3) the assertion of the right to speedy trial and 4) the “prejudice” that you may have suffered as a result of the delay.  The four factors I list all must be considered.

Courts have found delay to be “presumptively prejudicial” as it approaches one year.   If your case has been pending for a year or more, that level of delay could be considered prejudicial to your speedy trial right.  The second factor is the reason for the delay.   If the reason for the delay is that the state was not diligent, that weighs in your favor.  If the reason for the delay is that you took steps to delay resolution of the case, that weighs against you.  The third factor, ” assertion of the right” means that you must actively make the court aware of the delay and demand  speedy trial.  The fourth factor deals with the prejudice you may have suffered.  “Prejudice” can take many forms, even sometimes just  anxiety and concern on the part of the accused.  Prejudice does not necessarily require that you suffer some sort of impairment to your  defense.  Though prejudice may involve some apparent impairment of the defense, the law is clear that prejudice may involve only anxiety and concern, or expense or impairment of employment prospects.

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion that may significantly impact the way that Federal drug prosecutions are carried out in Texas.  On October 15, 2015 the Court decided United States v. Haines, No. 13-31287, 2015 WL 6080523. The Haines Court held that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that a  jury make a defendant specific finding, beyond a reasonable doubt,  of the drug quantity to each individual defendant to establish the  statutory minimum sentence.

Under the law as it existed prior to Haines, the only question for the jury to decide concerning drug quantity was the amount involved in the overall scope of the conspiracy.  The question of the amount applicable as to each individual defendant was a sentencing question for the Court on a lower standard of proof.  In the post Haines world, if the Government seeks to convict someone of  federal conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute drugs in an amount that carries enhanced statutory minimum sentences, the Government must prove that the individual person involved is personally responsible for an amount of drugs that triggers the statutory enhancement.  For example, under 21 United States Code section 841(b)(1)(A), a conspiracy involving 5 kilograms or more of  a cocaine mixture subjects a person to a mandatory statutory minimum of ten years imprisonment.

Prior to Haines, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum sentence, all the Government would need to prove is that they were guilty of a conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, and the the overall scope of the conspiracy involved 5 kilograms or more.  Now, to subject someone to that mandatory minimum, they must proved not only guilt as the the conspiracy, but also that the individual person is personally responsible for an amount sufficient to trigger the enhanced minimum penalty.

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The United States Supreme Court issued a pair of decisions today that directly address two important provisions of the U. S. Constitution.  The opinions issued were overshadowed by the Court’s decision in the Arizona voting law case, which garnered the overwhelming majority of media attention.

Buried in that news cycle however were two important Supreme Court cases addressing the Constitution.  The first, Alleyne v. United States, overruled Harris v. United States, which was decided only eleven years ago.  In Alleyne, the Court decided by a 7-2 majority that any fact which, if proven, will have the effect of increasing the statutory minimum range to which the accused is subject, must be submitted to the fact finder and proved.  In other words, any fact or facts that will increase the statutory minimum implicates that Sixth Amendment.

For Federal practitioners, I do not see this as an opening to a fundamental change in the sentencing process.  The facts and issues generally regarded as sentencing factors that may increase the punishment within the prescribed statutory range will still be considered by the sentencing judge at sentencing and may be found reliable with a jury finding and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The Alleyne case does not appear, for example, to affect a sentencing court finding that the defendant acted as an Organizer, Manager or Leader, or that the defendant Obstructed Justice.