Betterman v. Montana

PETITIONER: Brandon Thomas Betterman
RESPONDENT: State of Montana
LOCATION: Montana Second Judicial District Court

DOCKET NO.: 14-1457
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: Montana Supreme Court

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Dec 04, 2015
ARGUED: Mar 28, 2016
DECIDED: May 19, 2016

Ginger D. Anders - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the respondent
Fred A. Rowley, Jr. - for the petitioner
Dale Schowengerdt - for the respondent

Facts of the case

Brandon Thomas Betterman failed to appear in court on December 8, 2011, on charges of partner or family member assault, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. On February 9, 2012, Betterman turned himself in and stated that he knew he was supposed to appear in court but claimed he had neither money nor transportation to get to the courthouse that day. He was convicted on March 15, 2012, and sentenced to five years. On April 19, 2012, he pled guilty to the charges of jumping bail. His sentence hearing did not occur until January 17, 2013, when he filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that he was denied a speedy and fair trial due to the amount of time that had lapsed between his guilty plea and sentencing hearing. On April 29, 2013, his motion was denied, and on June 27, 2013, Betterman was sentenced to seven years for his bail-jumping charge. The Supreme Court of Montana held that the delay between Betterman’s plea and sentencing was unacceptably long but had not violated his rights to fair and speedy trial.


Is it a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial to postpone sentencing for fourteen months after a guilty plea has been issued?

Media for Betterman v. Montana

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 28, 2016 in Betterman v. Montana

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 19, 2016 in Betterman v. Montana

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning on case 14-1457, Betterman versus Montana.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy trial.

The question in this case does that guarantee include a right to be speedily sentenced post-conviction.

Petitioner Brandon Betterman failed to appear in a Montana state court on domestic assault charges and was therefore charged with bail jumping.

More than 14 months passed between his bail jumping guilty plea and the imposition of his seven-year sentence for that offense.

The delay in large part was due to institutional lags, the presentence report took nearly five months to complete, the trial court took several months to decide two motions and the court was slow in setting a sentencing hearing.

On appeal Betterman unsuccessfully argued that the time lapse between his conviction and sentencing violated his speedy trial right.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment right does not only apply postconviction presentencing delay.

To resolve a disagreement among courts on this issue we granted review.

Criminal proceedings have three phases, each with its own checks against delay.

In the first stage before arrest or indictment, Statute of Limitations or for the primary protection plus the Due Process Clause serves as a safeguard against fundamentally unfair prosecutorial conduct.

The Sixth Amendment speedy trial right, we have already held, attaches at the start of the second phase when a defendant is arrested or formally accused.

Today we hold that the constitutional right detaches at the end of this phase upon conviction.

At the final stage from conviction to sentencing, statutes and rules guard against inordinate time lapses.

For example the relevant federal rule of criminal procedure and similar state rules direct courts to impose sentence without unnecessary delay.

Also as at the investigatory pre-arrest or charged stage so at the conviction through sentencing stage the Due Process Clause may serve as a back stop against exorbitant delay.

The speedy trial right loses force upon conviction, we explain, because it implements the presumption of innocence, a presumption that ends once a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty at trial.

The Sixth Amendment rights terms for the accused the right to a speedy trial.

Accused described his status preceding convicted and trial is an episode that occurs before sentencing.

That was as true when the Sixth Amendment was added to the Constitution as it is today.

Our precedent is corroborative.

The speedy trial guarantee, we have said, shields a presumptively innocent person from languishing under an unresolved criminal charge.

Although we have recognized that delay at any stage in the criminal justice process may be problematic, we have nevertheless confined the Sixth Amendment guarantee to its particular context.

In prior decisions, we held that the right does not apply prearrest.

In today's decision we similarly rule that the right does not extend postconviction.

The sole remedy for a violation of the Sixth Amendment's speedy trial right, we point out, is dismissal of the prosecution, a remedy that fits the right’s pre-conviction focus.

Betterman concedes that as he has pleaded guilty dismissal of the prosecution for presentence delay would be an unwarranted windfall.

Finally legislative measures accord with our reading.

The Federal Speedy Trial Act and similar state statutes are today the prime protectors against trial delay.

They impose precise time limits on the periods from arrest to indictment and from indictment to trial but say nothing about the posttrial time between conviction and sentencing.