Giving teeth to the Speedy Trial Act for competency-evaluation delays

Vindicating the right to a speedy trial is often difficult, likely because courts may be hesitant to impose harsh sanctions for timing issues. Further, one area where delay is particularly likely (and challenging) is when a defendant must undergo a competency evaluation. In the federal system, such an evaluation must happen in-custody at a federal medical center, usually hundreds of miles from the courthouse.

As National Association of Federal Defenders has explained:

[M]andatory detention can lead to significant delays in treatment and competency restoration. Federal Medical Centers lack treatment beds. Although the Bureau of Prisons operates six prison medical centers, only two facilities offer competency restoration programs for men, FMC Butner, North Carolina, and FMC Springfield, Missouri, while a single facility provides such programs for women at FMC Carswell, Texas. In February 2019, the BOP represented that the 7 shortest wait-time for competency restoration placement for men was approximately nine weeks. 

Because the FMCs are often located thousands of miles from the court in which charges are pending, transportation is problematic. In-custody transportation through the United States Marshals can take many weeks, with long bus rides during which defendants are shackled, and overnight stays are often in county jails and other contract facilities ill-equipped to address the needs of our incompetent clients.

This week, however, the Sixth Circuit gave teeth to the statutory requirements of the Speedy Trial Act in United States v. Brown.

Federal authorities accused Carlos Brown of stealing more than $177,000 through credit card fraud. But the prosecution hit a roadblock when, at the parties’ request, the court ordered Brown, who had been on pretrial release, to surrender to an FMC for a competency evaluation. Later that same day, Brown “returned to his residential treatment center and broke down, screaming, crying, and hitting staff members.” The district court, in response, ordered that the U.S. Marshals detain Brown pending the evaluation and ordered that “he must immediately report as soon as a facility is designated and the examination shall be conducted as soon as possible.”

As is all too common, transportation was delayed. The Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals encountered problems interpreting the two orders from the court. This led to a delay that, if the time started running from the day the court first ordered transportation to an FMC, violated the Speedy Trial Act, under which the government only gets 10 days to transport a defendant to a facility for a competency evaluation. 

The government argued, however, that the time did not run from the day of the court’s transportation order because, at that point, the Bureau of Prisons had not yet designated which federal medical center would conduct the evaluation. The government argued the time only started running after the designation, about 30 days after the court’s transportation order.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding that the time ran from the date of the district court’s transportation order. The court then turned to the question of the reasonableness of this delay. Recognizing that this type of delay is presumptively unreasonable under the Speedy Trial Act, the court found that the government did not rebut that presumption. The disruption caused by the bond violation and subsequent detention order did not excuse the delay, nor did the record presented provide sufficient explanation for the delay.

The Sixth Circuit thus found that this delay warranted vacating Brown’s conviction.

But there’s more. The Sixth Circuit also addressed additional delay, after Brown came back from the medical facility, resulting from the district court taking too long to rule on his motion to dismiss based on the delayed transportation. The Speedy Trial Act allows district judges 30 days, from the time a pretrial motion is taken under advisement, to issue a ruling.

Here, the court took 49 days to rule on the motion but attempted to excuse the delay by retroactively finding that the ends of justice excused the delay. The Sixth Circuit decided that the district court abused its discretion in making this ends-of-justice finding. The Sixth Circuit explained that the court’s explanation—its own schedule, counsel’s availability, and other continuances in the case—did not suffice. 

In the end the Sixth Circuit remanded for the district court to decide whether the case should be dismissed with or without prejudice, so it is too soon to know if Brown will get relief. But the decision cements the importance of adherence to the timing rules for criminal trials.

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