431 U.S. 783 (1977), 75-1844, United States v. Lovasco

Docket Nº:No. 75-1844
Citation:431 U.S. 783, 97 S.Ct. 2044, 52 L.Ed.2d 752
Party Name:United States v. Lovasco
Case Date:June 09, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 783

431 U.S. 783 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 2044, 52 L.Ed.2d 752

United States



No. 75-1844

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 1977

Argued March 21-22, 1977




More than 18 months after federal criminal offenses were alleged to have occurred, respondent was indicted for committing them. Beyond an investigative report made a month after the crimes were committed, little additional information was developed in the following 17 months. Claiming that the preindictment delay, during which material defense testimony had been lost, deprived him of due process, respondent moved to dismiss the indictment. The District Court, which found that the delay had not been explained or justified, and was unnecessary and prejudicial to respondent, granted the motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the delay, which it found was solely attributable to the Government's hope that other participants in the crime would be discovered, was unjustified.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in affirming the District Court's dismissal of the indictment. Pp. 788-797.

(a) Although the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment is applicable only after a person has been accused of a crime and statutes of limitations provide "`the primary guarantee against bringing overly stale criminal charges,'" United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 322, those statutes do not fully define a defendant's rights with respect to events antedating the indictment, and the Due Process Clause has a limited role to play in protecting against oppressive delay. Pp. 788-789.

(b) While proof of prejudice makes a due process claim ripe for adjudication, it does not automatically validate such a claim, and the reasons for the delay must also be considered. Pp. 789-790.

(c) To prosecute a defendant following good faith investigative delay, as apparently existed in this case, does not deprive him of due process even if his defense might have been somewhat prejudiced by the lapse of time. Prosecutors are under no duty to file charges as soon as probable cause exists but before they are satisfied that they will be able to establish a suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor is there a constitutional requirement that charges must be filed after there is sufficient evidence to prove such guilt but before the investigation is complete. An immediate arrest or indictment might impair the prosecutors' ability to continue the investigation or obtain additional indictments,

Page 784

would pressure prosecutors into resolving doubtful cases in favor of early (and possibly unwarranted) prosecution, and would preclude full consideration of the desirability of not prosecuting in particular cases. P. 790-796.

532 F.2d 59, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 797.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to consider the circumstances in which the Constitution requires that an indictment be dismissed because of delay between the commission of an offense and the initiation of prosecution.


On March 6, 1975, respondent was indicted for possessing eight firearms stolen from the United States mails, and for dealing in firearms without a license. The offenses were alleged to have occurred between July 25 and August 31, 1973, more than 18 months before the indictment was filed. Respondent moved to dismiss the indictment due to the delay. The District Court conducted a hearing on respondent's motion at which the respondent sought to prove that the delay was unnecessary and that it had prejudiced his defense. In an effort to establish the former proposition, respondent presented a Postal Inspector's report on his investigation that was prepared one month after the crimes were committed,

Page 785

and a stipulation concerning the post-report progress of the probe. The report stated, in brief, that, within the first month of the investigation, respondent had admitted to Government agents that he had possessed and then sold five of the stolen guns, and that the agents had developed strong evidence linking respondent to the remaining three weapons.1 The report also stated, however, that the agents had been unable to confirm or refute respondent's claim that he had found the guns in his car when he returned to it after visiting his son, a mail handler, at work.2 The stipulation into which the Assistant United States Attorney entered indicated that little additional information concerning the crimes was uncovered in the 17 months following the preparation of the Inspector's report.3

To establish prejudice to the defense, respondent testified that he had lost the testimony of two material witnesses due to the delay. The first witness, Tom Stewart, died more than a year after the alleged crimes occurred. At the hearing

Page 786

respondent claimed that Stewart had been his source for two or three of the guns. The second witness, respondent's brother, died in April, 1974, eight months after the crimes were completed. Respondent testified that his brother was present when respondent called Stewart to secure the guns, and witnessed all of respondent's sales. Respondent did not state how the witnesses would [97 S.Ct. 2047] have aided the defense had they been willing to testify.4

The Government made no systematic effort in the District Court to explain its long delay. The Assistant United States Attorney did expressly disagree, however, with defense counsel's suggestion that the investigation had ended after the Postal Inspector's report was prepared. App. 9-10. The prosecutor also stated that it was the Government's theory that respondent's son, who had access to the mail at the railroad terminal from which the guns were "possibly stolen," id. at 17, was responsible for the thefts, id. at 13.5 Finally, the prosecutor elicited somewhat cryptic testimony from the Postal Inspector indicating that the case "as to these particular weapons involves other individuals"; that information had been presented to a grand jury "in regard to this case other than . . . [on] the day of the indictment itself"; and that he had spoken to the prosecutors about the case on four or five occasions. Id. at 20.

Following the hearing, the District Court filed a brief opinion and order. The court found that by October 2, 1973, the date of the Postal Inspector's report, "the Government had

Page 787

all the information relating to defendant's alleged commission of the offenses charged against him," and that the 17-month delay before the case was presented to the grand jury "had not been explained or justified" and was "unnecessary and unreasonable." The court also found that "[a]s a result of the delay defendant has been prejudiced by reason of the death of Tom Stewart, a material witness on his behalf." Pet. for Cert. 14a. Accordingly, the court dismissed the indictment.

The Government appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In its brief the Government explained the months of inaction by stating:

[T]here was a legitimate Government interest in keeping the investigation open in the instant case. The defendant's son worked for the Terminal Railroad and had access to mail. It was the Government's position that the son was responsible for the theft and therefore further investigation to establish this fact was important

. . . Although the investigation did not continue on a full time basis, there was contact between the United States Attorney's office and the Postal Inspector's office throughout . . . and certain matters were brought before a Federal Grand Jury prior to the determination that the case should be presented for indictment. . . .

Brief for United States in No. 75-1852 (CA8), pp. 5-6. The Court of Appeals accepted the Government's representation as to the motivation for the delay, but a majority of the court nevertheless affirmed the District Court's finding that the Government's actions were "unjustified, unnecessary, and unreasonable." 532 F.2d 59, 61 (1976). The majority also found that respondent had established that his defense had been impaired by the loss of Stewart's testimony because it understood respondent to contend that

were Stewart's testimony available it would support [respondent's] claim that he did not know that the guns were stolen from the United States

Page 788


Ibid. The court therefore affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the three possession counts by a divided vote.6

[97 S.Ct. 2048] We granted certiorari, 429 U.S. 884, and now reverse.7


In United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307 (1971), this Court considered the significance, for constitutional purposes, of a lengthy preindictment delay. We held that as far as the Speedy Trial Clause of the Sixth Amendment is concerned, such delay is wholly irrelevant, since our analysis of the language, history, and purposes of the Clause persuaded us that only

a formal indictment or information or else the actual restraints imposed by arrest and holding to answer a criminal charge . . . engage the particular protections


Page 789

that provision. Id. at 320.8 We went on to note that statutes of limitations, which provide predictable, legislatively enacted limits on prosecutorial delay, provide "`the primary guarantee against bringing overly stale criminal charges.'" Id. at 322, quoting United States v. Ewell, 383 U.S. 116, 122 (1966). But we did acknowledge that the "statute of limitations does not fully define [defendants'] rights with respect to the events occurring prior to indictment," 404 U.S. at 324, and that the Due Process Clause has a limited role to play in...

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