December 23, 2016 | Supreme Court Reviews

Vermont Supreme Court Articulates Due Process Standard for Prosecutors’ Pre-Accusation Delays

In State v. King, 2016 VT 131 (Dec. 23, 2016), the Supreme Court answered a certified question from the superior court by articulating the standard by which a pre-accusation delay can be considered to violate a defendant’s due process rights. 

Issue: Defendant was interviewed by a detective from the state’s attorney office about an alleged sexual assault against complainant in February 2009.  There was then no activity in the case until August 2012, when complainant’s mother contacted the office to inquire about the case.  The office told her that they did not want to file charges without assurances from the complainant that she wanted to move forward—and that they had never received this confirmation. The complainant’s mother told the Office that complainant wished to pursue charges.  On August 30, 2012, charges were filed.  The superior court, then, certified a question of law to the Supreme Court: what is the proper standard for evaluating whether a pre-accusation delay violates a defendant's due process rights?

Holding: The Supreme Court held that, to establish that a pre-accusation delay in filing charges against a defendant violated the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution, a defendant must demonstrate actual substantial prejudice and prosecutorial misconduct intended to gain a tactical advantage or to advance some other impermissible purpose.  Defendant failed to establish that the three-year delay in filing charges against defendant violated his due process rights under the United States or the Vermont constitutions.

Dissent: Robinson, J, dissented, noting that holding prosecutors to a standard that requires more than negligence is inappropriate, because sometimes prosecutorial negligence will result in immense prejudice to a defendant facing significant criminal charges.  She advocated a different requirement: The defendant must initially show prejudice resulting from the delay.  Once this is made, the court must balance the prejudice against the reasonableness of the delay.