WASHINGTON — A closely divided Supreme Court Tuesday limited the constitutional right to a speedy trial, ruling that American Indian activist Dennis Banks and three others may be tried 11 years after they were first charged with illegally transporting firearms and explosives.
The court held 5 to 4 that the time during pretrial appeals, when defendants are neither under indictment nor otherwise restricted, may not be counted as impermissible delay.
Further, it said, the government may not be penalized for bringing pretrial appeals when the defendants are under indictment--so long as such appeals are justified and not aimed merely at delay. In the Banks case, in which the defendants were free during most of a lengthy and complex appeals process, there was no denial of speedy trial, the court said.
Prisoner Suits Curbed
In another ruling, the justices, partly reversing a 1981 court decision, restricted the ability of prisoners to sue authorities for injuries resulting from officials' unintentional negligence. There is no constitutional right to bring such suits in federal courts, even when there is no alternative legal remedy in state courts, the justices said.
In the speedy trial case, the justices overturned a 1984 decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco requiring the dismissal of charges against Banks and the others that resulted from the discovery by Oregon police of 350 pounds of dynamite, six time bombs, 2,600 rounds of ammunition and assorted firearms after a 1975 car chase and shoot-out.
The appeals court, putting most of the blame for the delay on government prosecutors and a congested judicial system, held that the defendants had been denied the right to a speedy trial under the Sixth Amendment.
But Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., writing for the court majority, declared: "There is no showing of bad faith or dilatory purpose on the government's part. The government's position in each of the appeals was strong . . . ."
Powell noted that the defendants themselves had contributed to the delay by filing "indisputably frivolous" appeals.
Appeals Took 5 Years
In dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, said that the court had given "short shrift" to the right to a speedy trial. Marshall pointed to the fact that it had taken the Circuit Court five years to decide two appeals and said that the government--not the defendants--should suffer the consequences of delays attributable to "overcrowded courts."
Oregon authorities stopped two vehicles in 1975 when searching for Banks and others sought in connection with the 1973 armed confrontation between militant Indians and federal authorities at Wounded Knee, S.D. Police officers arrested several persons, but Banks escaped and was not taken into custody until 1976.
He was freed pending appeal and lived in California and New York before surrendering in 1984 to face charges in a separate case in South Dakota. He served part of a three-year term in that state before being paroled last December.
Trial Delayed for Years
Meanwhile, trial in Oregon was delayed for years as the defense and prosecution fought over the defendants' attempts to suppress evidence in the case and gain dismissal of the charges. At one point, 46 months ensued between the District Court's initial dismissal of the charges--because the government refused to proceed with a trial while it was appealing an evidentiary ruling--and their reinstatement by the appeals court.
Finally, the District Court held in 1983 that the defendants' rights to a speedy trial had been violated and dismissed the charges. A year later, the appeals court upheld that ruling.
In its decision (U.S. vs. Loud Hawk, 84-1361), the Supreme Court rejected the defendants' contention that, even though they were free on their own recognizance much of the time, they were denied their right to a speedy trial because the government still intended to prosecute them if it won its appeals.
The prisoner ruling involved two cases before the court. In the first, the court ruled unanimously against a Richmond, Va., inmate who had brought suit for injuries he suffered when he slipped on a pillow left on a stairway by a sheriff's deputy (Daniels vs. Williams, 84-5872).
Attacked in Prison
In the second, the justices voted 6 to 3 to reject a suit brought by a New Jersey state prisoner who charged that authorities had failed to protect him from an attack by a fellow inmate about whom he had warned them (Davidson vs. Cannon, 84-6470).
Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing in the Virginia case, said that the due-process clause of the Constitution was designed to protect individuals from abuses of power by authorities and that it would "trivialize" that principle to invoke it in cases involving mere negligence.
In a dissent in the New Jersey case, Blackmun, joined by Marshall, said that the state had forced the prisoner to rely solely on the authorities for protection--but, when he turned to them, "they ignored his plea."