House passes speedy trial compromise

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The Kansas House on Thursday approved an agreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers that is intended to help relieve a backlog in the court system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House voted 107-17 to pass a bill that suspends the speedy trial law until May 1, 2024, for all criminal cases to give the courts the ability to work through cases that have piled up during the pandemic.

The bill preserves the speedy trial rights in state law, which is stricter than the broader-worded right enumerated in the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The original version of the bill would have ended those rights in state law, which sets a  150-day requirement for holding trials for defendants who are in custody and 180 days for those who are out of custody.

The bill still raises questions about whether suspending the speedy trial rights for all criminal cases for three years goes too far.

Democratic state Rep. Brett Parker of Overland Park tried unsuccessfully to reduce the length of time for the suspenion to two years, ending in 2023.

“I think the negotiations between the prosecutors and the defense attorneys was a good-faith negotiation, but I would point out that is not the complete set of interested parties,” Parker said.

“While that might be an agreeable compromise for them to be able to do their jobs in what they see as the best way,” Parker said, “there is someone missing from that conversation, and that is the Kansan who may be innocent whose right to a speedy trial is being put off for three more years.”

Republican state Rep. Brad Ralph of Dodge City said he wouldn’t characterize the agreement between the prosecutors and the defense attorneys as “just another compromise.”

“I think when we call for stakeholders to reach a compromise, what we have to keep in mind is that each of those entities is giving up something and each of them is gaining something,” Ralph said.

“When we insert, for no apparent reason, something different, at that point someone who gave during that negotiation and that discussion is left to wonder if the next time I come to the time table, why should I negotiate in good faith at that point,” he said.

A similar proposal is awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democratic lawmakers had similar concerns about the 2024 date.

“I am not comfortable with the May 1, 2024 date,” said Democratic state Sen. Ethan Corson of Prairie Village.

“I think it is too long and we need to have it for a shorter period,” Corson said. “We can always extend it if we need to.”

Corson said he would prefer to start with a shorter period, giving the Legislature an opportunity to monitor how the caseload is progressing.

The current law gives the chief justice of the state Supreme Court the latitude to suspend judicial deadlines during an emergency disaster declaration.

The legislation would mean the speedy-trial statute could be waived regardless of whether there is an emergency declaration in place.

If the current emergency declaration lapsed without a new law, prosecutors would be under a tight deadline to try cases for defendants now being held or risk having them dismissed.

The bill would give the courts more latitude to move through their backlog, which varies from judicial district to judicial district.