Speedy Trial Requirement & Six Month Rule on Misdemeanor Cases: Exceptional Circumstances Required for Deviations

The recent New Mexico Court of Appeals decision in State v. William Sharp clarified the 2008 amendments to Rule 6-506 NMRA, also known as “the six-month rule,” and the standard for its review by a district court.

The “six month rule” is a shorthand term which generally refers to a criminal defendant‘s right to a speedy trial under the 6th Amendment –within six months of his or her arraignment. This latest decision may have an impact on the number of cases dismissed on the basis of the six-moth rule.

In State v. Sharp, the defendant was charged with aggravated DWI in March of 2009. The defendant waived his arraignment on March 23, 2009, which triggered the six-month rule.

Under Rule 6-506, a defendant‘s trial must begin within 182 days of arraignment or waiver of arraignment. A court may extend the 182 days if it believes that there are circumstances beyond its control that prevent the trial from beginning within the allowed period. The extension may not exceed 60 days. Pursuant to the rule, defendant‘s trial had to begin by September 21, 2009. Trial was set for August 4, 2009.

However, six weeks before his trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, and four days before his trial was set to start, the defendant requested a continuance. The continuance was granted and the trial was rescheduled for October 2nd. On the day of the hearing on the defendant‘s motion to suppress, the defendant sought to dismiss the entire case based on violation of the six-month rule. In a written order, the magistrate court denied the motion to dismiss. The defendant was subsequently found guilty in a jury trial on October 28th.

The defendant then appealed to the district court and filed another motion to dismiss based on violation of the six-month rule. The district court overruled the magistrate court and dismissed the case. In so doing it asserted that the State failed to file a written response to the motion to dismiss in magistrate court and that the magistrate court was required to state on record the extraordinary circumstances requiring an extension to the six-month rule.

Last week, the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the district court, remanding the case for a determination of whether, under the particular facts, the violation of the six-month rule warranted a dismissal of the case. The appellate court reversed on two main grounds: (1) the district court‘s improper standard of review; (2) the district court‘s misconstruing of the amended six-month rule.

The Court of Appeals began its discussion by explaining the difference between the old six-month rule and the amended six-month rule. While the old rule made it mandatory for courts to dismiss a case for non-compliance with the 182-day period, the current six-month rule gives courts discretion to decide whether to dismiss or impose other more suitable sanctions in accordance with the specific facts of each case.

In addition, the appellate court found that the district court erred in the way that it reviewed the magistrate court decision. The district court based its decision on appellate review of the magistrate court‘s actions rather than de novo review of whether the particular facts of the case warranted dismissal for violation of the six-month rule. Appellate review gives deference to the lower court‘s decision, while in a de novo review the district court is in no way bound by the lower court proceedings.

In New Mexico, speedy trial rule violations are perhaps the most common basis for dismissal, particularly at the misdemeanor level. Most of New Mexico‘s magistrate, municipal and metropolitan level courts are fairly strict in the enforcement of the 182 day (speedy trial) rule. It remains to be seen how this ruling will affect future court practices and how this will impact the rights of criminal defendants in New Mexico. Arguably, it should not because typically there will be no extraordinary circumstances present to justify a violation of the U.S. Constitution.


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