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Georgia Court of Appeals Remands Sexual Battery Case for New Hearing

October 2, 2012

In Singleton v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals has held that a trial court erred in denying the defendant's claim that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated.

In doing so, the Court reiterated that the time for calculating pretrial delay begins to run at the time of arrest, not at the time of indictment.

Singleton was arrested in April 2007 and, more than two years later, he was indicted in DeKalb County Superior Court for aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery. After filing a number of discovery motions in early 2010, he filed a plea in bar in 2011 asserting that his constitutional right to a speedy trial had been violated by the 4-plus year delay. Singleton appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion by considering only the 19 months between the indictment and the filing of the plea in bar as opposed to the 55-month delay between his arrest and the denial of his plea in bar. The Court of Appeals agreed.

The constitutionally-protected right to a speedy trial attaches as soon as a defendant is arrested, formally accused, or indicted, whichever occurs first. Howard v. State, 307 Ga. App. 822, 706 S.E.2d 163 (2011). For this reason, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for reconsideration by the trial court using the correct time period.

Singleton’s claim must be analyzed under the four-part test established in Barker v. Wingo, 407 U.S. 514 (1972), “considering (1) the length of the delay, (2) the reason for the delay, (3) the defendant’s assertion of his right to a speedy trial, and (4) the prejudice to the defendant.” The conduct of both the prosecution and the defendant must be considered in an overall balancing of these factors to determine whether the defendant’s constitutional rights have been violated. Nusser v. State, 275 Ga. App. 896, 622 S.E.2d 105 (2005).

As to the first prong of the Barker test, the length of delay, the Court suggested that once the trial court considers the appropriate length of delay in the context of Singleton’s case which was not factually complex, the trial court may conclude that this factor weighs substantially against the State. As to the second prong, reason for delay, although both sides concede the State did not deliberately delay Singleton’s prosecution, the Court concluded that the trial court correctly found that the reason for the delay was largely due to an overcrowded docket. The Court noted, however, that the weight assigned to governmental negligence compounds over time and has encouraged the trial court to consider this in the context of the full 55-month delay.

The Court did not find Singleton wholly blameless. Examining the third prong of the Barker test, the Court found that Singleton waited more than four years to assert his right to a speedy trial. Also cutting against him was the fact that Singleton experienced very minimal prejudice as he was only incarcerated for three days, experienced little anxiety due to the delay, and was not impaired in presenting his defense. The Court explained, however, that it would be impossible to know exactly how this prong, or any of the other three, would have come out under a proper analysis considering the full 55-month delay. Therefore, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for a complete re-balancing by the trial court.

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