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With the dispute over the timeliness of commencement of the impeachment trial being much in the news, Maryland’s Court of Appeals last week issued an opinion in Anthony Marlin Tunnell v. State of Maryland regarding the timeliness of commencement of a criminal trial. Maryland, by statute and a 1979 case called Hicks v. State, has a rule that criminal trials must commence within 180 days of the first appearance of the criminal defendant or his or her counsel in court, unless consented to by the defendant or a showing of “good cause.”  While noting that “a tool to avoid delay is to set a deadline-the bane and prod of those who must do what needs to be done,” the Court explored what is good cause for such a delay of Maryland criminal trials.

The opinion indicates that Tunnell was indicted for murder. The prosecution sought to delay the original trial date so that DNA analysis of crime scene evidence could be completed, and a report as required could be provided to the defense attorney. The State apparently believed that the “Hicks date” of 180 days was automatically tolled or extended where DNA evidence needed to be provided. The defense counsel objected, but the trial court found good cause to postpone the trial, which did not start until 41 days beyond the original 180 day deadline. Tunnell was convicted and appealed.

The Court of Appeals took the case to explore the apparent notion of extension of the Hicks deadline for the provision of DNA reports. The majority opinion noted that the purpose of the Hicks rule is the carry out the public policy of speedy resolution of criminal cases, with the ultimate sanction being dismissal of the charges if the rule is violated. While it is common for defendants to waive the 180 day deadline for practical reasons such as defense counsel needing time to prepare, the requirement of a showing of good cause is to protect the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

The appellate Court held that there is no automatic tolling of the 180 day deadline just to provide the results of analysis of DNA evidence, or production of discovery of evidence to defense counsel. Here, however, the Court of Appeals rules that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in finding good cause to postpone the trial to beyond that deadline, and upheld the conviction.

Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.

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