New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
September 15, 2009

Second Circuit Holds Defendant Has Right to Speedy Sentencing

In an important recognition that incarceration can undermine successful presentence rehabilitation, the Second Circuit vacated the custodial portion of a sentence on the grounds that a fifteen-year delay in sentencing violated the defendant’s right to a speedy sentence under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  Citing more cases from the 19th Century than an opinion by Justice Scalia, United States v. Ray, 2009 WL 2616247 (2d Cir. August 27, 2009), is also notable as a precedent for the right to a speedy sentence and the Constitutional underpinnings of such a right (turns out, it does not emanate from the Sixth Amendment’s Speedy Trial Clause), and gives EDNY Judge Platt the unique badge of honor of having precipitated seminal decisions on both Speedy Trial rights (Zedner v. United States, 547 U.S. 489 (2006)) and speedy sentencing rights.  


Ms. Ray was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to 12 months.  On direct appeal, her case was remanded by stipulation for resentencing.  The case lay dormant for 15 years, before she was summoned for resentencing.  In the interim, she raised three children, built a career, remarried, bought a home and a car, and enrolled in an associate’s degree program at a community college.  Rejecting her motion for dismissal for violation of her right to a speedy sentence, and rejecting her request for a probationary sentence (which had been supported by the government), Judge Platt “keeping his own counsel,” as the Second Circuit noted, resentenced her to three years of supervised release with a special condition that she serve six months in a halfway house.  She appealed claiming a violation of her speedy sentence rights.  

Constitutional Right to a Speedy Sentence

The Court held that Ms. Ray’s right to a speedy sentence had indeed been violated, but in a lengthy and fascinating historical analysis into the “original meaning of the word ‘trial,’” concludes that this right emanates not from the Sixth Amendment’s right to a speedy trial – as the Supreme Court and most circuits, including the Second, had presumed – but rather, under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  Whether a defendant has been deprived of her due process right to a speedy sentence depends on the reasons for the delay as well as any prejudice she suffered.  

Reasons for the Delay

Here, the government’s admitted negligence in allowing the case to languish, weighed against it.  On the other hand, since “it is not the defendant’s duty, or that of her attorney, to see that she is speedily prosecuted and sentenced,” Ray’s failure to request a sentencing would only weigh against her to the extent that she sought dismissal of the indictment.  If all she seeks is a modification of the terms of her sentence, the Court saw “no reason to impose blame, fault, or responsibility on her for the delay, on the mere basis of the fact that she did not take earlier steps to be sentenced more rapidly.”

Prejudice to the Accused

For a sentencing delay to be a due process violation, the prejudice to the defendant must be “substantial and demonstrable.”  Here, there was serious prejudice where “to remove [Ray] from her current life and compel her to reside for six months in a halfway house would undermine her successful rehabilitation.”  Agreeing with the observations of the Eighth Circuit, the Court held “a defendant should be allowed to do his time, live down his past, and reestablish himself.  Permitting a sentence to go unexecuted does not encourage rehabilitation.”


Weighing the reasons for the delay and the prejudice to Ray (which was “truly significant”), the Court concluded that “the dictates of fundamental fairness clearly compel [the Court] to conclude that Ray’s [Due Process] rights were violated.”


The remedy the Court adopted here is also interesting.  Rather than remand for resentencing, it simply vacated the custodial portion of Ray’s sentence, since that was the source of the prejudice she suffered.  


Delays in sentencing are not uncommon in federal cases, and presentence rehabilitation is quite common.  While the facts in this case are highly unusual and unlikely to be repeated (the Court took pains to emphasize “the narrowness of this holding”), the case is an important one on the right to a speedy sentence, the defense lawyer’s duty (or lack thereof) to enforce that right, and – of wider application – the acknowledgement that incarceration after a long period of pre-sentence release can undermine successful rehabilitation.  This is especially true in cases involving first-time non-violent offenders.

Lawyers: Yuanchung Lee of Federal Defenders; AUSAs Charles Kelly and David James 

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