In Winchester v. State, the Maine Supreme Court considered whether criminal cases that took between 33 and 42 months to resolve should have been dismissed under the Maine Constitution’s speedy trial provision. The court clarified the test for analyzing such claims under the state constitution, contrasted that approach with the federal test, and remanded for consideration in light of several relevant factors.

Between June 2014 and March 2015, Dennis Winchester was criminally charged in six cases.[1] The resolution of each case was delayed by a combination of factors, including changes in appointed counsel, scheduling issues, and unexplained gaps between Winchester’s motions and the trial court’s rulings.[2] In December 2017, Winchester was found guilty in one of those cases following trial and pled nolo contendere in the remaining five cases.[3] All told, it took between 33 and 42 months to resolve Winchester’s cases.[4]

In 2018, Winchester appealed his conviction on the ground that the trial court erred when it denied his motions to suppress.[5] The Maine Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision but did not address whether Winchester was deprived of his right to a speedy trial.[6] In 2019, Winchester filed for post-conviction review (PCR), asserting that his speedy trial rights were violated.[7] The PCR court denied the petitions after analyzing Winchester’s speedy trial claim under the federal test articulated in Barker v. Wingo.[8] The Maine Supreme Court granted review, construed Winchester’s claim as resting “solely on the Maine Constitution,” and requested supplemental briefing on the appropriate test for analyzing speedy trial claims under the Maine Constitution.[9]

The court began by noting that it can consider, “without limitation,” text, purpose, history, common law, economic and sociological considerations, and precedent when interpreting the state constitution.[10] The text of article I, section 6 provides: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have a right . . . [t]o have a speedy, public, and impartial trial . . . .”[11] Although the court often looks to the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights as a “starting point” for interpreting analogous provisions of the Maine Constitution (Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820), the text of article I, section 6 is unique.[12] And while references to a “speedy” trial appear in early state constitutions and the Sixth Amendment, the court concluded that the plain language of article I, section 6 does not provide the appropriate test for analyzing speedy trial claims.

Moving to historical context, the court noted that one “motivating factor” in Maine’s separation from Massachusetts was the “long delay in obtaining trials.”[13] Because Massachusetts courts operated in only some of Maine’s counties—and typically no more than once per year—it was “not an unusual thing” for people to be confined for nine or ten months while waiting for a Massachusetts court to hold trial.[14] The 1819 Articles of Separation reflect frustration with lengthy pre-trial confinement by providing that “all actions, suits, and causes . . . shall be . . . heard, tried, and determined in the highest court of law . . . at the first term of such court.”[15] The constitution drafted later that year dropped the specific deadline in favor of its current, more open-ended language.[16]

The court also noted that the right to a speedy trial has been protected by a statute or rule of criminal procedure since Maine became a state. In 1821, Maine enacted a statute providing that criminal defendants who asserted their right to a speedy trial must be bailed, tried, or discharged within the current or following court term.[17] In 1965, the “term” approach was eliminated.[18] The statute was ultimately replaced by a rule of criminal procedure that measures the relevant time by “unnecessary delay.”[19] The court also found that sociological considerations favor a “dynamic” construction of article I, section 6 because the Maine Constitution is a “live and flexible instrument fully capable of meeting and serving the imperative needs of society in a changing world.”[20]

Looking to its speedy trial precedent, the court discussed several factors relevant to its flexible approach to article I, section 6.[21] First is the “actual length of the delay.”[22] While ordinary delays inherent in the criminal justice process cannot result in a speedy trial violation in the absence of some “additional circumstances,” even “conspicuously excessive” delays may be justified by mitigating factors.[23] Accordingly, the court has neither identified a minimum delay necessary to trigger a speedy trial violation nor a delay that is always constitutionally excessive.[24] Second, the court considers whether delays are “attributable to the accused or to the State.”[25] Third, the accused must assert their right to a speedy trial.[26] In the context of an ineffective assistance claim, the court asks whether the defendant actually asserted or attempted to assert the right.[27] Fourth, the court assesses prejudice to the defendant caused by the delay, including (a) undue and oppressive incarceration prior to trial; (b) the accused’s anxiety and concern due to public accusation; (c) impairment of the accused’s ability to mount a defense.[28]

Next, the court contrasted article I, section 6 with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although the same four factors are relevant to claims raised under both provisions, the court noted that its approach to article I, section 6 is distinct in a few key ways.[29] First, a defendant’s failure to assert their right to a speedy trial under article I, section 6 can result in a waiver of the right.[30] Second, under article I, section 6, the remedy for an excessive delay might in some instances be release from incarceration rather than dismissal of the charges.[31] Lastly, no delays are presumptively prejudicial under article I, section 6.[32]

The court concluded that the PCR court failed to properly analyze Winchester’s speedy trial claim under article I, section 6.[33] Most importantly, the PCR court “did not give any weight to what it determined was the most significant portion of the overall delay”: the trial court’s unexplained 15-month delay in ruling on Winchester’s motions to suppress.[34] And although the PCR court determined that Winchester had not raised his right to a speedy trial, the court identified record evidence suggesting that Winchester repeatedly attempted to have his appointed counsel assert his right to a speedy trial.[35] The court also instructed the PCR court to independently analyze the three harms the speedy trial right is designed to prevent, particularly whether Winchester was prejudiced by pretrial detention.[36] The court vacated the judgment and remanded with instructions to analyze Winchester’s speedy trial claim consistent with its opinion.[37]

Learn more about state courts

[1] Winchester was incarcerated during a portion of this case’s history due to a prior conviction. Winchester v. State, 291 A.3d 707, 711 ¶ 2 (Maine 2023).

[2] Id. at 711 ¶ 3.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 713 ¶ 4. Winchester argued that he was denied effective assistance of counsel due to his attorneys’ failures to raise his speedy trial claims. Id. His petitions thus hinged on “whether he had meritorious grounds to move to dismiss the indictments based on his right to a speedy trial.” Id. at ¶ 11.

[8] Id. at 713 ¶ 4 (citing 407 U.S. 514 (1972)).

[9] Id. at 715 ¶¶ 12–13. The court recognized that Winchester’s PCR petitions did “not identify whether he was making a claim under the Maine or United States Constitutions,” id. at n.4, but nevertheless addressed the state constitutional claim “given the current indeterminate status of our precedent regarding the test for a speedy trial violation under the Maine Constitution,” id. at 715 ¶ 13.

[10] Id. at 715 ¶ 14.

[11] Id. at 715–16 ¶ 15 (quoting Me. Const. art. I, § 6).

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 716 ¶ 19.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 716–17 ¶ 20.

[16] Id. at 717 ¶ 20.

[17] Id. at 717 ¶ 22.

[18] Id. at 717 ¶ 23.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at 718 ¶ 24.

[21] Id. at 718–21 ¶¶ 26–39.

[22] Id. at 718–19 ¶¶ 26–27.

[23] Id. at 718 ¶ 26.

[24] Id. at 718–19 ¶ 27.

[25] Id. at 719 ¶ 28.

[26] Id. at 719 ¶ 29.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 719–20 ¶ 30.

[29] Id. at 720 ¶ 33.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id. at 720 ¶¶ 34–39.

[33] Id. at 726–27 ¶ 59.

[34] Id. at 723 ¶ 47.

[35] Id. at 724–25 ¶¶ 52–53.

[36] Id. at 725–26 ¶¶ 54–58.

[37] Id. at 726–27 ¶ 59.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at