The right to a speedy trial was generally accepted throughout the U.S. even before it was incorporated against the states by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment in Klopfer v. North Carolina (1967). The federal Speedy Trial Act of 1974 attempted to define more precisely what a “speedy trial” should mean. In most cases, when a suspect is arrested, the prosecutor has 30 days to file an indictment, and the trial should take place within 70 days of the date the indictment has been filed. The clock begins ticking, therefore, the moment the accused is under restraint.
As noted above, these limitations are meant to ensure that the suspect is not detained longer than necessary before obtaining a judgment about his guilt or innocence. But there is another reason why a speedy trial is desirable: lengthy delays in judicial proceedings may impair the evidence. Over time, the memories of witnesses fade, and some witnesses may even die, putting the defendant at a disadvantage. These concerns are normally addressed by statutes of limitations, which are general rules determined by the legislature. But the courts may decide that these considerations are particularly relevant in certain cases. If a judge decides that a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated, he or she may dismiss an indictment or even overturn a conviction.