The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees all individuals “the right to a trial without unreasonable delay.” This right is meant to protect criminal defendants from lengthy and unjustified detentions when their guilt has not yet been proven and to ensure that each defendant’s right to a fair trial is not merely provided, but provided expeditiously. However, the question often arises: what constitutes an unreasonable delay, and when may a state be justified in its failure to quickly bring a defendant to trial? A recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia addresses this precise issue.
In State ex rel. Sorsaia v. Hon. Stowers, prosecuting attorney Mark Sorsaia sought review of a decision by the Honorable Judge Stowers that Putnam County in West Virginia failed to satisfy Caleb Toparis’ right to a speedy trial. In April 2014, Putnam County filed a criminal complaint against Mr. Toparis for assault, domestic assault, and domestic battery. It was alleged that Mr. Toparis had beaten up his girlfriend after they began arguing at a party. Mr. Toparis turned himself in several days later, and on May 9, 2014, a preliminary hearing to address his charges was conducted. At that hearing, the magistrate judge found that there was probable cause for the grand jury to consider the charge of assault, but he allowed Mr. Toparis to transfer the misdemeanor charges of domestic battery and domestic assault to circuit court. It was not until February 2015 that West Virginia filed an official information charging Mr. Toparis with the misdemeanor crimes in the circuit court case, and a pre-trial conference did not occur until May 2015.
At that pre-trial conference, Mr. Toparis moved to dismiss the charges against him, arguing that his right to a speedy trial had been violated because he had not been tried for the charges against him within one year of when the original criminal complaint had been filed and a warrant executed. In so arguing, Mr. Toparis relied on West Virginia case law holding that criminal trials in a magistrate court must begin within one year of the execution of the warrant. On this basis, the circuit court judge granted Mr. Toparis’ motion to dismiss, and Putnam County appealed.
On appeal, Putnam County argued that Mr. Toparis had waived his right to a trial within one year of the execution of the warrant because he moved to have his misdemeanor charges transferred to circuit court. The Supreme Court, on appeal, acknowledged that West Virginia law presumptively requires a criminal trial in magistrate court to begin within one year of when a warrant is executed in order to ensure a speedy trial. However, the Supreme Court also noted that the laws permit defendants like Mr. Toparis to waive their right to a trial before a magistrate and to instead proceed directly toward proceedings before a circuit court. Disagreeing with the lower court, the Supreme Court held that when Mr. Toparis expressly waived his right to have his misdemeanor charges considered by a magistrate judge, he also waived his right to have his misdemeanor case tried within one year of his warrant because the one-year requirement applies only to magistrate proceedings. The Court noted that to hold otherwise would allow criminal defendants to manipulate the system by seeking to have charges transferred from magistrate court to circuit court in an effort to prolong proceedings to the point of exceeding the one-year requirement.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court of West Virginia issued a writ of prohibition preventing the lower court from enforcing its order on Mr. Toparis’ motion to dismiss and remanding the case back to the circuit court for further criminal proceedings on Mr. Toparis’ claims.
If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in West Virginia, you are entitled to a fair and speedy trial addressing the charges against you. If you feel that your case is being unreasonably delayed, the West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm may be able to help you. We have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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