Monday, June 25, 2007

Delay While Court Considered Co-Defendan'ts Guilty Plea, and While Severance Motion Was Pending, Did Not Toll Speedy Trial Act Deadline

United States v. Stephens, Nos. 04-30185, 05-30668 (5th Cir. June 14, 2007) (King, Garza, Owen)

Take care not to read this opinion while driving or operating heavy machinery. As is perhaps inevitable for a case dealing with periods of excludable delay under the Speedy Trial Act, the procedural history is INVOLVED, to say the least. Fortunately, you don't need to keep track of the exact dates and time periods in order to understand the case, so feel free to put away your calendar, slide rule, and giant Thermos of coffee. On second thought, you might want to keep one cup o' joe at hand as you read this post. We are talking about the STA after all.

Stephens was indicted in November of 2000, along with his co-defendant Turner, for conspiracy to commit bank robbery, armed bank robbery, and using a firearm in a bank robbery. The case dragged on for some time, due in large part to lengthy competency proceedings involving Turner. In April 2002, one day after the court determined that he was competent to stand trial, Turner pled guilty. The court took the plea under consideration, instead of accepting it at that time. Seven weeks later, in May 2002, a superseding indictment was returned against Stephens. He finally went to trial in October 2003.

Three weeks before his trial Stephens filed a motion to dismiss the indictment due to a failure to bring him to trial within 70 days, as required by the Speedy Trial Act. The district court denied the motion, finding that, "after factoring in all excludable delays, only sixty-nine days had elapsed on the Speedy trial clock." Stephens was found guilty at trial, and the district court sentenced him to a total of 50 years and 10 months' imprisonment.

Stephens pressed his STA claim on appeal, and won himself a reversal of his conviction. The court of appeals agreed that the seven weeks that elapsed in-between Turner's guilty plea and the return of the superseding indictment were not excludable from the STA's 70-day indictment-to-trial deadline. The court observed that under § 3161(h)(7), “the excludable delay of one codefendant may be attributable to all codefendants.” But the attribution is not automatic; it must be reasonable. And it was unreasonable here for three reasons. First, the purpose of § 3161(h)(7) is to facilitate joint trials, and that consideration falls by the wayside when one of two co-defendants pleads guilty. Second, even though a co-defendant's guilty plea doesn't automatically eliminate the possibility of a joint trial, there was little likelihood of a joint trial here. That's because Turner had agreed to testify against against Stephens, and the Government wanted Turner's sentencing put off until after the trial so that the court would be able to determine whether Turner complied with the plea agreement before accepting his plea. Third, Stephens had been detained without bond for three years, he had been asserting his speedy trial rights one way or another during much of that time, and Stephens' trial had already been postponed for 15 months during the pendency of Turner's competency proceedings.

The court also rejected the Government's argument that the seven weeks were excludable for reasons other than the district court's delay in accepting Turner's guilty plea. The Government argued that Stephens' STA clock was tolled from the time he filed a severance motion in January 2001 until the superseding indictment in May 2002. The court acknowledged that the STA clock stops running while pretrial motions are pending or under advisement. But the "under advisement" period lasts for no longer than 30 days, after which the STA clock starts running again even if the district court hasn't ruled on the motion. For reasons which you can read if you're interested, the court held that the advisement period began in May 2001, and that it expired thirty days later in June 2001. Consequently, the un-ruled-upon severance motion did not toll the STA clock during the seven-week period in 2002.

Accordingly, the court reversed Stephens' conviction, dismissed the indictment, and remanded for the district court to determine whether the dismissal would be with or without prejudice.



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