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Criminal Law Section ‘grateful’ the Supreme Court left the speedy trial unchanged for now

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Warren LindseySome members of the criminal trial bar are expressing relief that the Florida Supreme Court — at least for the time being — has declined to adopt sweeping changes to the speedy trial rule.

In a recent opinion, In Re: Amendments to the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure 3.134 and 3.191, justices wrote that after reviewing numerous comments, they were declining to adopt changes proposed by the Florida Supreme Court Criminal Court Steering Committee.

Critics contended that the proposal would have “completely abrogated” the speedy trial rule by allowing the clock to start running from the date an indictment or information is filed instead of from the date of arrest.

Criminal Law Section Chair Warren Lindsey praised the decision.

“The Criminal Law Section is grateful that the Supreme Court took no action to change the speedy trial rule at this time,” he said. “We believe that the proposed changes, while well-intended, would have had an enormous negative impact on the criminal justice system of Florida, including a substantially negative, disproportionate effect on indigent accused citizens.”

Critics were concerned that the proposed changes would force innocent suspects to live under the threat of criminal prosecution for years, or until the expiration of the statute of limitations.

“In essence, the proposed amendments to the speedy trial rule would have allowed, at the option of the prosecutor’s office, to extend the commencement of the speedy trial rule literally for years, up to the end of any applicable statute of limitations,” Lindsey said.

Indigent suspects would be harmed most, defense attorneys said, because they would not be assigned counsel until long after corroborating witnesses had disappeared, or memories had faded, and exculpatory evidence had been lost.

The issue is likely to surface again, however.

In the unanimous decision, Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote, “that by separate letter, the Court will refer the matter to the Steering Committee with additional direction for further consideration.”

A court spokesperson could not immediately say whether justices have forwarded new instructions.

In March 2019, the Supreme Court asked the steering committee to study the speedy trial rule in light of comments that Justice Alan Lawson made in a dissenting opinion in Born-Suniago v. State, 256 So. 3d 783 (Fla. 2018).

In it, Lawson argued that the speedy trial rule puts prosecutors at an unfair disadvantage and society at risk.

“It is clear from this court’s opinions, and from other appellate decisions applying this court’s precedent, that the 175-day period has been used a substantive permanent bar to prosecution, and without affording the State a recapture period, in cases involving charges of theft, assault, drug trafficking, armed robbery, sex crimes against children, and murder,” Lawson wrote.

In comments filed with the court, the Criminal Law Section argued that from May 2013 to June 2018, only 12 of 866,160 defendants received a dismissal due to speedy trial violations.

“Some cases will be resolved by a favorable negotiation or nolle prosse in the face of significant speedy problems,” the section acknowledged. “Nonetheless, the experience of section members is that speedy dismissals are rare.”

The section also argued that the change would endanger practice standards.

“Cases could float in limbo between arrest and the filing of formal charges for an indefinite (or even arbitrary) period of time, making it difficult to conform to recognized standards for effective representation and uncertainty in terms of what it means to provide constitutionally adequate defense.”

Reform advocates argue that the speedy trial rule represents an unconstitutional infringement on legislative authority.

In his written comments to the court, Arthur “Buddy” Jacobs, an attorney for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, argued that changes to the speedy trial rule are long overdue.

“The FPAA is strongly in favor of the ideas behind the CCSC’s proposals because the existing speedy trial rule has been abused, has far too often led to unfair outcomes, and intrudes on the Legislature’s power to create substantive law,” Jacobs wrote.

However, prosecutors suggested that the steering committee modify its proposal.

“The FPAA does have a few suggestions, however, most of which are minor,” Jacobs wrote. “The most important difference between the CCSC and the FPAA proposals is that the FPAA contends the rule would work better if the speedy trial clock started from the time of arraignment or the filing of a waiver of arraignment, after the State formally charged the defendant.”

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