Magistrates as well as federal judges must honor a defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver rendered that precedent-setting ruling Monday in a Utah case involving an accused drug courier whose case was mired in legal wrangling for more than a year.A three-judge panel overturned the conviction and sentence of Maria Louisa Mora, saying that the delays occurred in a magistrate's court was no excuse.
Mora was arrested at the Salt Lake International Airport on Jan. 8, 1996, after Drug Enforcement Administration and Metro Narcotics Task Force officers were alerted by California police that she was "body-packing" some heroin.
During a search in an airport restroom, Mora surrendered a "baseball size" bundle of heroin that she had hidden in the crotch area of her pants. Three days later, she was arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Samuel Alba.
On Jan. 24, defense attorney Stephen R. McCaughey filed a motion to suppress the evidence on grounds the police search was illegal. The legal wrangling over that issue continued through May 1, when Alba continued a scheduled trial pending resolution of the dispute over the evidence. The court docket shows no further action in the case until Jan. 31, 1997, when Alba recommended that McCaughey's motion be denied.
The case then went to Judge Tena Campbell, who adopted Alba's recommendation and also rejected McCaughey's new assertion that the delays had violated Mora's right to a speedy trial.
The Speedy Trial Act generally requires that a criminal defendant is entitled to trial within 70 days of indictment. Campbell, however, ac-cept-ed the prosecution argument that the speedy trial clock doesn't begin to run until a federal judge is in possession of the magistrate's report.
On April 9, 1997, Mora entered a conditional plea of guilty and was sentenced to 37 months in prison. McCaughey appealed to the 10th Circuit Court, arguing that the 209 "non-excludable" days that elapsed before the filing of the magistrate's report violated his client's rights.
Writing for the court, appeals Judge William J. Holloway said the government was essentially saying that when it comes to a federal district court's responsibility under the Speedy Trial Act, magistrate judges are not part of the court.
"If we were to adopt the government's argument, we would essentially gut the act by creating a mechanism by which the lower courts could effectively circumvent the requirements of the act," Holloway said.
"Under the government's reading of the act, the district judge can simply render the act meaningless by passing off issues to the magistrate, who then has an unlimited amount of time to consider the issues and enter an order or rec-ommendation."
The appeals court didn't buy the government's contention that the public and defendants don't run a risk of undue delays because district judges supervise the work of magistrates.
"We think the public and the criminal defendant are entitled under the act to more protection than that afforded by the promise of supervision by the district judge," Holloway said.
A district judge is entitled to a 30-day "excludable period" to consider the magistrate's recommendation, the appeals court said. Even when that's applied to the Mora case, however, "the Speedy Trial Act was seriously violated," the court concluded.
The three judges vacated her conviction and sentence and sent the matter back to district court to determine whether the case should be dismissed with or without prejudice, which would determine whether criminal charges could be refiled. Mora, meanwhile, has been jailed for 25 months of her 37-month sentence.