United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783 (1977)

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An individual charged with firearms violations sought dismissal of the indictment on the ground that the delay between the commission of the offense and the initiation of the prosecution—more than eighteen months—was both unnecessary and prejudicial to his defense and thereby deprived him of due process of law.

In a previous case, United States v. Marion, the United States Supreme Court held that only a formal charge or an arrest triggers an individual’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, and it stated that statutes of limitation provide the primary protection against overly stale criminal charges. Nevertheless, it acknowledged that ‘‘the Due Process Clause has a limited role to play in protecting against oppressive delay.’’

In United States v. Lovasco, the Court examined that role. It concluded that although prejudice to an individual’s defense generally is a necessary condition for a due process violation, it is not a sufficient condition; rather, the reasons for the delay are also relevant. The Court then held that prosecuting an individual after a delay caused by the government’s further investigation of the criminal transaction in question does not deprive that individual of due process, even though the lapse of time might have somewhat prejudiced the individual’s defense. The Court strongly implied that pre-accusation delay would deprive an individual of due process only when the government undertakes delay ‘‘solely to gain tactical advantage over the accused’’ or recklessly disregards an appreciable risk that delay would impair the accused’s ability to mount an effective defense.


References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. 4th ed. St. Paul: Thompson-West, 2004, pp. 877–879.
  • Rudstein, David S., C. Peter Erlinder, and David C. Thomas. Criminal Constitutional Law. Newark and San Francisco: LexisNexis-Matthew Bender, 1990, 2004, pp. 11–48 to 11–56.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307 (1971)

See also Speedy Trial