The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial . . . .” Does this right apply to sentencing hearings? No, per a unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court.
In Betterman v. Montana, 136 S. Ct. 1609 (2016), the Supreme Court determined that the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial did not apply to sentencing hearings. In Betterman, the defendant was jailed for over 14 months awaiting sentence on domestic assault charges. Eventually, the defendant was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, four of which was suspended. Afterward, the defendant appealed, arguing that the 14-month gap between conviction and sentencing violated his speedy trial right. However, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence, determining that the right to a speedy trial did not apply to presentence delay.
On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed the Montana high court’s decision, reasoning that, historically, “accused” was a status distinct from “convicted” and “trial” was distinct from judgment (i.e., sentencing). Thus, based on the language of the Sixth Amendment considered in its historical context, the Court affirmed that the right to a speedy trial did not apply to sentencing hearings.
Given the above, does a defendant have any recourse for extended delays between conviction and sentencing? Yes. The Court noted that the Due Process Clause protects against exorbitant delay: “After conviction, a defendant’s due process right to liberty, while diminished, is still present. He retains an interest in a sentencing proceeding that is fundamentally fair.” So, did due process help the defendant in this case? Sadly, no. The Court expressed no opinion on the issue because the defendant failed to advance a due process claim. Ouch!
Betterman v. Montana, 136 S. Ct. 1609 (2016)