- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court considered Monday whether a delay in imposing a prison sentence violates the Constitution’s right to a speedy trial.

The justices heard arguments in a case from Montana in which defendant Brandon Betterman waited in jail for 14 months before being sentenced on a bail-jumping charge.

The court seemed concerned about sentencing delays especially because so many criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains instead of trials.

“Most of the action these days takes place in the sentencing phase,” Justice Elena Kagan said.

The court has never before extended the right to a speedy trial that is part of the Sixth Amendment to the sentencing phase of a case.

Some justices suggested that sentencing delays would be better handled under the Constitution’s due process clause that protects people’s rights in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fred Rowley Jr., Betterman’s lawyer, urged the court to find a violation of his client’s right to a speedy trial because the criminal proceeding continues through sentencing. A defendant might be delayed from starting drug treatment and suffer a setback in his rehabilitation, Rowley said.

But Montana Solicitor General Dale Schowengerdt said once a defendant has been convicted, either in a trial or through a guilty plea, the speedy trial right no longer applies. Betterman waited nine months before he even raised concerns about the delay, Schowengerdt said.

Betterman also eventually started a rehabilitation program after he was paroled from prison, but quit it just 16 days later, Schowengerdt said. “So parole was rescinded,” he said.

In 2011, Betterman failed to appear in court in Butte, Montana, on a domestic violence charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison on the domestic violence charge, and he pleaded guilty to the separate charge of jumping bail in April 2012.

The delays included waiting for completion of a pre-sentencing investigation report, then a further holdup when he tried to get the charge against him dismissed because of the time it was taking to sentence him.

Betterman was finally sentenced to seven years on the bail-jumping charge in June 2013. He said he should have been eligible for conditional release for the domestic violence conviction by then, but he wasn’t yet in the prison system. He also couldn’t complete other requirements of his domestic violence sentence, such as counseling, and the delay had caused him anxiety and depression, he said.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled against him, reversing its own 2006 decision that said sentencing was included in the right to a speedy trial.

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