Speedy trial for prisoners
Back about six years ago, one of my favorite judges figured he'd do me a favor, and assigned me an aggravated robbery case which had come back on a reversal and remand. The defendant had already done eight years in prison, and the judge assured me that the resolution would be simple: the defendant would plead out, the judge would sentence him to time served, and I'd submit my fee bill. Easy money. A quick call to my secretary confirmed that at that particular moment there wasn't anybody standing outside my office door with a burning desire to give me a thousand bucks, so I took the case.
It seems that this was in the same category as those radio ads which promise that you can quadruple your income by working for a couple of hours a week out of your home. The defendant wouldn't make a deal, it turned out; he was still on parole, and a guilty plea would have violated him and sent him back to serve the remaining fifteen years of his sentence. Besides, he wasn't interested in working something out. He had become an expert on Ohio's "other" speedy trial statute, RC 2941.401, and he was going to ride that horse all the way.
That section, as you can see, provides that if the state brings an indictment against someone who's already a prisoner in Ohio, it has six months to try him; otherwise, the case is dismissed, just as with the regular speedy trial statute. Of course, that's contingent on the prisoner making a demand for trial. What had happened with my client was that he claimed the state didn't properly notify him of the pending charges, and so he didn't have a proper chance to demand the trial. The judge (a different one; this was ten years earlier) didn't buy it, and denied the motion to dismiss.
Which is where things got really funky. The defendant worked out a plea, intending to take the issue up on appeal. He did, only to find that his guilty plea waived his right to contest the denial of the motion to dismiss. (Just as it will waive everything else except whether the plea was valid, and the sentence. If you want to take up a denial of a motion to suppress, for example, you need to plead no contest to the indictment.) Long story short, a couple years later the defendant filed a motion for post-conviction relief, arguing that his counsel was ineffective for not telling him about this. The attorney was a stand-up guy, and testified that he'd wrongly advised his client that he could still appeal from a guilty plea. The judge vacated the conviction. The prosecutor took the case up to the court of appeals, which affirmed it, and so after a ten-year legal oddyssey, the case was back at square one: the judge didn't feel bound by his predecessor's ruling on the application of 2941.401, so he wanted a new hearing on whether the defendant had been properly notified of the pending indictment, so that he could request disposition. That's the door I came in.
Last week, the Supreme Court cleared all that up in State v. Dillon. No, that wasn't my case, but it was fairly similar. The defendant had been told by the police that he'd been indicted, and the state had subsequently sent a copy of the indictment to the warden and told him to serve it on the defendant. He never did; Dillon was finally served with the indictment when he was brought back by the county for his arraignment.
The trial judge held that Dillon was required to demand trial when he was first informed of the indictment. The court of appeals didn't agree, though, and neither did the Supreme Court, ruling 6-1 that when the statute requires the warden to "promptly inform [defendant] in writing of any untried indictment. . . of his right to make a request for final disposition thereof," it means exactly that. The defendant wasn't under any obligation to demand a trial until the warden formally notified him, and the time began to run when the warden was first informed of the indictment.
Dillon is obviously not going to have broad application, and it has to be read in context with State v. Hairston, where the Court held that 2941.401 didn't impose any affirmative duty on the state to find out where the defendant was imprisoned, so that it could serve him with the indictment. It is nice to see the Supreme Court actually apply the language of a speedy trial statute as it's written. It would be even nicer if they'd do this with the main speedy trial statute, holding, for example, that when the statute says that the time is tolled for "any period of delay necessitated" by a defense motion, it means that the time is tolled for any period of delay actually necessitated by the motion, not just by the filing of the motion. (A fuller exposition of that argument, as well as a cute cat picture, can be found in this post.)
So whatever happened to my case? Nothing. The judge held a hearing on the motion to dismiss, but by that time the defendant was out of prison and in a halfway house, a few months away from full release on parole. The judge apparently figured that even if he ruled for the defendant, the state could take it up on appeal, and the defendant might wind up having to serve additional time, which the judge, again apparently, didn't figure was fair. So he sat on the case. The next to the last entry on the docket, six years ago, is "HEARING HELD ON MOTION TO DISMISS. HEARD AND SUBMITTED." The only entry after that is the one authorizing me getting paid my fees by the County Auditor.
See? This story did have a happy ending.