Zedner v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Forbidden Wheels Motorcycle Club

DOCKET NO.: 05-5992
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 547 US 489 (2006)
GRANTED: Jan 06, 2006
ARGUED: Apr 18, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 05, 2006

Daryl Joseffer – argued the cause for Respondent
Edward Scott Zas – argued the cause for Petitioner

Facts of the case

Under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, a federal criminal trial must begin within 70 days of the defendant’s arrest or first appearance in court. The Act includes a list of delays which do not count toward this 70-day period, and one of these acceptable delays occurs when a federal district court finds on the record that the “ends of justice” served by granting a delay outweigh the public’s and defendant’s interest in a speedy trial. In this case, Zedner was a defendant in a criminal trial and twice asked the district court to issue such an order. The third time he requested one, the district court judge suggested that he sign a waiver of his right to a speedy trial under the Act for all time. Zedner signed the form, and accordingly the next time he asked for a delay the judge did not make on-the-record findings exempting the 91-day delay. Four years later, Zedner filed a motion to dismiss based on the failure to comply with the Act’s 70-day period that resulted from that 91-day delay. The district court rejected the motion because of the waiver, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Zedner appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the waiver he signed was invalid under the Act.


(1) May a defendant waive his right to a speedy trial under the Speedy Trial Act of 1974? (2) May Zedner, who had previously signed a waiver of his rights under the Act, later base an appeal on the fact that such a waiver was invalid? (3) And was the judge’s failure to exempt the 91-day period on the record harmless error?

Media for Zedner v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 18, 2006 in Zedner v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 05, 2006 in Zedner v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Alito has the opinion in 05-5992, Zedner versus United States.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, and it concerns the operation of the Speedy Trial Act of 1974.

The Act generally requires a federal criminal trial to begin within 70 days after a defendant is charged or makes an initial appearance; but the Act recognizes that there are various reasons for greater delay in particular cases, and it provides a detailed list of specific circumstances where delay is not counted towards the 70-day speedy-trial clock.

If the clock runs out and the defendant moves before trial begins and before entering a guilty plea, the District Court must dismiss the charges, though it may do so with or without prejudice.

The petitioner here, Jacob Zedner, was indicted for his attempts to open accounts using counterfeit United States bonds.

Initially, the District Court granted two so-called ends-of-justice continuances.

The Act provides that delay may be excluded from the Speedy Trial Act if the ends of justice outweigh the defendant’s and the public’s interest in a speedy trial; but the Act requires the judge to make on-the-record findings to that effect.

When petitioner asked for a third continuance, the District Court started to worry about scheduling; so the District Court asked petitioner to simply waive the application of the Act for all time, and the District Court produced a preprinted form for him to sign; petitioner agreed.

At the next status conference in January of 1997, petitioner asked for another continuance.

The Court granted it, but didn’t say anything about the Speedy Trial Act.

That continuance lasted 91 days, until petitioner came back to court in May of 1997.

A few years later, petitioner argued that the 91-day continuance in 1997 was not excludable from the speedy-trial clock, so the case should be dismissed.

The District Court disagreed, and the case went to trial, where petitioner was convicted.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

The question before us is whether the 91-day delay was excludable under the Act.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk of the Court, we conclude that it was not excludable; so we reverse the 2nd Circuit.

The case must be dismissed, though it will up to the District Court in the first instance to decide whether dismissal should be with or without prejudice.

First, we think that prospective waivers of the Act like the one here are completely at odds with the structure and the purpose of the Act.

The Act lays out in great detail many categories of excludable delay; but waiver by the defendant is not among them, and the purpose of the Act is to protect not just the defendant’s interest in a speedy trial, but to protect the public’s interest, as well, because the public has an interest in the prompt administration of criminal justice, an interest that busy courts’ prosecutors and defense counsel may not always attend to.

Allowing a defendant to opt out of the Act would prevent the Act from serving the public’s interest, so petitioner’s waiver was ineffective.

The Government has other arguments for why the delay was excludable, but none of them persuades us.

The Government invokes the doctrine of judicial estoppel, which generally prevents a party from gaining an unfair benefit by changing its position on an issue during the course of litigation.

We will not apply that doctrine under the circumstances here, principally because it would swallow up the Act’s no-waiver policy.

The Government also suggests that the 91 days in question could have been excluded under an ends-of-justice continuance.

The trouble with that argument is that the Act explicitly says that no period of delay resulting from an ends-of-justice continuance is excludable unless the court sets forth on the record its reasons for making its findings.

At the very least, that finding has to be on the record by the time the court rules on a defendant’s motion to dismiss.

That was not the case here.

Nor can that failure be regarded as harmless.

The Act’s provisions regarding this are detailed, procedurally strict and unambiguous.

Regarding failure to comply with the Act in this way is harmless would undermine the system Congress has set up.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

The decision is unanimous except that Justice Scalia does not join Part 3(a)(2) and has filed an opinion concurring in part and in the judgment.