How slow is too slow?

By Terri Flagg -

While a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial is protected by the U.S. Constitution, exactly what determines “speedy,” can be difficult to determine.

In a March 2009 article, UNC School of Government professor Jeff Welty explained how acceptable trial length is handled by state and federal agencies.

Constitutional violations are determined by the court four-point balancing test that considers the length of the delay, the reason, the time and manner in which the defendant has asserted his right and the degree of prejudice to the defendant which the delay has caused.

Federal statute is more specific.

The U.S. Speedy Trial Act requires that, with certain exceptions, a trial must begin in federal proceedings within 70 days of indictment.

North Carolina’s own Speedy Trial Act, which required the defendant be tried within 120 days, was repealed in 1989.

“Obviously, a speedy trial statute wouldn’t be a panacea for delays, some of which are inevitable, and perhaps desirable, in complex cases,” Welty wrote.

North Carolina adopted “voluntary time standards,” not requirements, based on those adopted in 1996 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

They suggest that 90 percent of non-capitol Superior Court felonies be disposed within one year of filing and 100 percent disposed within 1.5 years.

When questioning if state courts were operating efficiently, the North Carolina Courts Commission looked at the number of cases pending for three years or more as a measure.

“No single metric is a perfect way to determine which counties or districts are most or least efficient,” Welty said in an email. “But cases pending more than 36 months is a common metric. That’s a long time for a case to be pending. Sometimes people exclude capital cases, which can take exceptionally long to resolve.”

According to information provided by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to the courts commission, as of October 2015, Surry County had 257 criminal cases pending more than 36 months.

That number is dwarfed by some counties, two of which numbered more than 4,000 and four between 1,000 and 2,000.

However, in those counties and throughout the state, the bulk of pending cases come from motor vehicle misdemeanors followed by non-motor vehicle misdemeanors.

Felony Superior Court cases arguably have the most impact on public safety, victims and defendants.

Within that category, Surry County ranked 12 out of 100 counties in terms of the most number of pending cases, with 122 felony Superior Court cases pending more than 36 months.

As of March 2016, there were 103 cases pending for 36 months or more in Surry County, and it was still ranked the twelfth highest in the state.

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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