Klopfer v. North Carolina

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386 U.S. 213 (1967), argued 8 Dec. 1966, decided 13 Mar. 1967 by vote of 6 to 3; Warren for the Court, Harlan and Stewart in dissent. Under North Carolina's “nolle prosequi with leave” law, challenged in this case, a prosecutor could indefinitely suspend prosecution on an indictment without having to provide a reason to the court. Frustrated by a prosecutor who after his inability to obtain a conviction at a first trial decided to reinstitute charges but suspend prosecution indefinitely, Klopfer, the defendant, pressed for a trial or dismissal of charges. When neither was forthcoming, he attacked the law and the prosecutor's decision on the grounds that his Sixth Amendment guarantee of a speedy trial had been denied.

In accepting Klopfer's arguments and extending the Sixth Amendment speedy trial guarantee to the states under the same standards that apply to the federal government, the Supreme Court also gave its first significant interpretation of the Sixth Amendment's right to a speedy trial. It held that the right was “as fundamental as any of the rights secured by the Sixth Amendment” and traced it back to “the very foundation of our English law heritage” (p. 223). Furthermore, the Court ruled, although the accused was neither being held in custody nor subject to restrictions on his movement, nevertheless the “anxiety and concern accompanying public accusation,” as well as the possibility of public scorn, was injury enough to violate his right to a speedy trial (p. 222). Despite its sweeping language, in subsequent cases, such as Barker v. Wingo (1972), the Court has employed a balancing test to interpret this right and in so doing has almost always held for the prosecution.

Malcolm M. Feeley

Subjects: Law.

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