Betterman v. Montana

Betterman v. Montana


578 U.S. ___ (2016)

Oral arguments are available at


Vote:   8 (Alito, Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Kennedy, Roberts, Sotomayor, and Thomas)


Opinion of the Court: Ginsburg

Concurring opinions: Sotomayor, Thomas




            Brandon Betterman was arrested for domestic assault and released on bail. When he failed to show up for his court date, he was charged with bail jumping. After he pleaded guilty to the bail jumping charge, he was held in jail for over 14 months awaiting sentencing. The delay was caused by a number of factors, including five months to complete the presentence report, several months for the court to deny two presentence motions, and an extraordinarily long time for the trial judge to schedule the sentencing hearing. Betterman was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison, with four of those years suspended. He unsuccessfully appealed to the Montana Supreme Court arguing that the 14-month period between conviction and sentencing violated the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment.


JUSTICE GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court:

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . .” Does the Sixth Amendment’s speedy trial guarantee apply to the sentencing phase of a criminal prosecution? That is the sole question this case presents. We hold that the guarantee protects the accused from arrest or indictment through trial, but does not apply once a defendant has been found guilty at trial or has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. For inordinate delay in sentencing, although the Speedy Trial Clause does not govern, a defendant may have other recourse, including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Petitioner Brandon Betterman, however, advanced in this Court only a Sixth Amendment speedy trial claim. He did not preserve a due process challenge. We, therefore, confine this opinion to his Sixth Amendment challenge.

Criminal proceedings generally unfold in three discrete phases. First, the State investigates to determine whether to arrest and charge a suspect. Once charged, the suspect stands accused but is presumed innocent until conviction upon trial or guilty plea. After conviction, the court imposes sentence. There are checks against delay throughout this progression, each geared to its particular phase.

In the first stage—before arrest or indictment, when the suspect remains at liberty—statutes of limitations provide the primary protection against delay, with the Due Process Clause as a safeguard against fundamentally unfair prosecutorial conduct. United States v. Lovasco (1977).

The Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause homes in on the second period: from arrest or indictment through conviction. The constitutional right, our precedent holds, does not attach until this phase begins, that is, when a defendant is arrested or formally accused. United States v. Marion (1971). Today, we hold that the right detaches upon conviction, when this second stage ends.

Prior to conviction, the accused is shielded by the presumption of innocence, the “bedrock[,] axiomatic and elementary principle whose enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.” Reed v. Ross (1984). The Speedy Trial Clause implements that presumption by “prevent[ing] undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial, . . . minimiz[ing] anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation[,] and . . . limit[ing] the possibilities that long delay will impair the ability of an accused to defend himself.” Marion. See also Barker v. Wingo (1972). As a measure protecting the presumptively innocent, the speedy trial right—like other similarly aimed measures—loses force upon conviction.

Reflecting the concern that a presumptively innocent person should not languish under an unresolved charge, the Speedy Trial Clause guarantees “the accused” “the right to a speedy . . . trial.” At the founding, “accused” described a status preceding “convicted.” And “trial” meant a discrete episode after which judgment (i.e., sentencing) would follow.

This understanding of the Sixth Amendment language—“accused” as distinct from “convicted,” and “trial” as separate from “sentencing”—endures today.

This Court’s precedent aligns with the text and history of the Speedy Trial Clause. Detaining the accused pretrial, we have said, disadvantages him, and the imposition is “especially unfortunate” as to those “ultimately found to be innocent.” Barker. And in Marion, addressing “the major evils protected against by the speedy trial guarantee,” we observed: “Arrest is a public act that may seriously interfere with the defendant’s liberty, whether he is free on bail or not, and that may disrupt his employment, drain his financial resources, curtail his associations, subject him to public obloquy, and create anxiety in him, his family and his friends.” We acknowledged in Marion that even in pre-arrest—a stage at which the right to a speedy trial does not arise—the passage of time “may impair memories, cause evidence to be lost, deprive the defendant of witnesses, and otherwise interfere with his ability to defend himself.” Nevertheless, we determined, “this possibility of prejudice at trial is not itself sufficient reason to wrench the Sixth Amendment from its proper [arrest or charge triggered] context.” Adverse consequences of postconviction delay, though subject to other checks, are similarly outside the purview of the Speedy Trial Clause.

[A]t the third phase of the criminal-justice process, i.e., between conviction and sentencing, the Constitution’s presumption-of-innocence-protective speedy trial right is not engaged. That does not mean, however, that defendants lack any protection against undue delay at this stage. The primary safeguard comes from statutes and rules. The federal rule on point directs the court to “impose sentence without unnecessary delay.” Many States have provisions to the same effect, and some States prescribe numerical time limits. Further, as at the prearrest stage, due process serves as a backstop against exorbitant delay. After conviction, a defendant’s due process right to liberty, while diminished, is still present. He retains an interest in a sentencing proceeding that is fundamentally fair. But because Betterman advanced no due process claim here, we express no opinion on how he might fare under that more pliable standard.

The course of a criminal prosecution is composed of discrete segments. During the segment between accusation and conviction, the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause protects the presumptively innocent from long enduring unresolved criminal charges. The Sixth Amendment speedy trial right, however, does not extend beyond conviction, which terminates the presumption of innocence. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Montana is therefore affirmed.



I agree with the Court that petitioner cannot bring a claim under the Speedy Trial Clause for a delay between his guilty plea and his sentencing. As the majority notes, however, a defendant may have “other recourse” for such a delay, “including, in appropriate circumstances, tailored relief under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.” The Court has no reason to consider today the appropriate test for such a Due Process Clause challenge because petitioner has forfeited any such claim. I write separately to emphasize that the question is an open one.

The Due Process Clause is “flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands.” Morrissey v. Brewer (1972). This Court thus uses different tests to consider whether different kinds of delay run afoul of the Due Process Clause. In evaluating whether a delay in instituting judicial proceedings following a civil forfeiture violated the Due Process Clause, the Court applied the test from Barker v. Wingo (1972)—the same test that the Court applies to violations of the Speedy Trial Clause. See United States v. $8,850 (1983). Under the Barker test, courts consider four factors—the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant’s assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant. None of the four factors is “either necessary or sufficient,” and no one factor has a “talismanic qualit[y].” Barker.

. . . [I]t seems to me that the Barker factors capture many of the concerns posed in the sentencing delay context and that because the Barker test is flexible, it will allow courts to take account of any differences between trial and sentencing delays. The majority of the Circuits in fact use the Barker test for that purpose.


JUSTICE THOMAS, with whom JUSTICE ALITO joins, concurring.

I agree with the Court that the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause does not apply to sentencing proceedings, except perhaps to bifurcated sentencing proceedings where sentencing enhancements operate as functional elements of a greater offense. I also agree with the Court’s decision to reserve judgment on whether sentencing delays might violate the Due Process Clause. Brandon Betterman’s counsel repeatedly disclaimed that he was raising in this Court a challenge under the Due Process Clause.

We have never decided whether the Due Process Clause creates an entitlement to a reasonably prompt sentencing hearing. Today’s opinion leaves us free to decide the proper analytical framework to analyze such claims if and when the issue is properly before us.

Justice Sotomayor suggests that, for such claims, we should adopt the factors announced in Barker v. Wingo (1972). I would not prejudge that matter. The factors listed in Barker may not necessarily translate to the delayed sentencing context. . . . We should await a proper presentation, full briefing, and argument before taking a position on this issue.

The Court thus correctly “express[es] no opinion on how [Betterman] might fare” under the Due Process Clause.