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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Lovasco - 431 U.S. 783, 97 S. Ct. 2044 (1977)


As far as the Speedy Trial Clause of U.S. Const. amend. VI is concerned, a lengthy preindictment delay is wholly irrelevant, since only a formal indictment or information or else the actual restraints imposed by arrest and holding to answer a criminal charge engage the particular protections of that provision. Statutes of limitations, which provide predictable, legislatively enacted limits on prosecutorial delay, provide the primary guarantee against bringing overly stale criminal charges. But the statute of limitations does not fully define defendants' rights with respect to the events occurring prior to indictment and U.S. Const. amend. XIV has a limited role to play in protecting against oppressive delay.


Defendant was charged with certain federal offenses alleged to have occurred more than 18 months before the indictment was filed. In the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, defendant moved to dismiss the indictment due to delay, claiming that the delay was unnecessary and prejudicial to his defense because two witnesses had died during the delay. The District Court dismissed the indictment, finding that after one month following the crime, the government had all the information relating to the defendant's alleged commission of the offense and that the 17-month delay before bringing charges had not been explained or justified and was unnecessary and unreasonable. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, although accepting the government's motivation for the delay as being to keep the investigation open, nevertheless affirmed.


Did the delay between the commission of the offense, and the initiation of the prosecution, violate defendant’s right to due process?




Holding that even a lengthy pre-indictment delay that caused some prejudice did not violate a defendant's U.S. Const. amends. VI, XIV rights to a speedy trial and due process, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower courts. The Court held that a pre-indictment delay was wholly irrelevant for amend. VI purposes because the constitutional right to a speedy trial attached only after defendant was accused by indictment or information, or was actually restrained by arrest and detention to answer for a criminal charge. The Court also held that amend. XIV had a limited role to play in protecting against oppressive delay. The Court held that the death of two potential witnesses during the delay was not sufficient prejudice because defendant had not shown how their testimony would have aided the defense. The Court concluded that it could not discern how the investigatory delay violated those fundamental conceptions of justice that lay at the base of the American civil and political institutions and that defined the community's sense of fair play and decency.

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