136.1Speedy Trial

Constitutional and Statutory Protections
Last Updated: 12/01/23

Key Concepts

  • North Carolina does not have a “speedy trial" statute, but constitutional protections apply and prohibit unwarranted delays in criminal prosecutions.
  • Several other North Carolina statutes also set deadlines and limitations on the state when prosecuting particular types of criminal cases.

Constitutional Speedy Trial Provisions

North Carolina does not have a "speedy trial" statute that sets a deadline for concluding criminal cases, but the defendant still has a right to due process and a speedy trial arising under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article I, Section 18 of the North Carolina Constitution (“…justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay”).

  1. 5th and 14th Amendment (Due Process)
    A defendant’s rights under the “due process of law” clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect “a putative defendant against delayed accusations,” and these rights apply when due process standards of fundamental fairness are violated by the period of delay between the time the defendant allegedly committed the crime and when the defendant is actually charged with that crime. United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783 (1977); State v. McCoy, 303 N.C. 1 (1981).
  2. 6th Amendment (Speedy Trial)
    The Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy and public trial” applies only to post-accusation delays, so it is not triggered until criminal prosecution begins and a person is “formally accused” by indictment or arrest, whichever occurs first. United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307 (1971); United States v. Lovasco, 431 U.S. 783 (1977); State v. McCoy, 303 N.C. 1 (1981); State v. Washington, 192 N.C. App. 277 (2008). The 6th Amendment speedy trial guarantee does not apply to the sentencing phase after a defendant has been found guilty. Betterman v. Montana, 578 U.S. __, 136 S.Ct. 1609 (2016).
  3. Remedy for Constitutional Violation
    If the defendant shows that he or she has been denied a speedy trial under the state or federal constitution, the court must dismiss the charges with prejudice. G.S. 15A-954(a)(3) (court "must dismiss" the case if "[t]he defendant has been denied a speedy trial as required by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of North Carolina"); Strunk v. United States, 412 U.S. 434 (1973). See also State v. Woodward, 318 N.C. 276 (1986) (appellate court upheld district court judge’s dismissal of impaired driving case “for failure of State to prosecute”).

Statutory Speedy Trial Provisions

Unlike the federal system and a number of other states, North Carolina no longer has a true "speedy trial" statute that mandates bringing criminal cases to trial within a specified amount of time. See 18 U.S.C. 3161(c)(1) (federal speedy trial statute). North Carolina’s former speedy trial statutes, contained in Art. 35 of Chapter 15A (G.S. 15A-701 through -710), were repealed effective October 1, 1989.  However, there are a number of other statutory provisions that impact the state’s timeline for filing initial charges, seeking an indictment, or bringing a case to trial.

  1. Pre-trial Release Statute
    If a defendant is jailed on a felony warrant and demands a speedy trial in open court, the defendant must be indicted during the next term of court or released on bail unless the state’s witnesses are not available. G.S. 15-10. Similarly, if an incarcerated person accused of a felony demands a speedy trial in open court and is not tried within a statutorily set period (two terms of court, provided the two terms are more than four months apart), the person is entitled to be released from pre-trial detention. See G.S. 15-10; State v. Wilburn, 21 N.C. App. 140 (1974).
  2. Statute of Limitations
    There is no statute of limitations for felonies in North Carolina, but prosecutions for misdemeanors generally must be charged within two years after the commission of the offense. See G.S. 15-1(a); State v. Hundley, 272 N.C. 491 (1968); State v. Underwood, 244 N.C. 68 (1956). Some misdemeanor crimes have longer statutes of limitations, which are specifically designated by statute. E.g., G.S. 105-236(9) (establishing six-year statute of limitations for prosecutions for willful failure to file tax return or pay tax). Additionally, G.S. 15-1 was amended effective December 1, 2019, to provide a ten-year statute of limitations for a limited number of misdemeanor offenses including sexual battery and child abuse. G.S. 15-1(b).
    Once an offense has been charged, the statute of limitations is tolled by the pending charge, and therefore a subsequent charge for the same offense (e.g., a superseding misdemeanor statement of charges or a grand jury presentment and indictment) is not time-barred even if it is brought outside the original statute of limitations. See State v. Curtis, 371 N.C. 355 (2018); State v. Stevens, 266 N.C. App. 223 (2019). The statute of limitations in G.S. 15-1 previously only referred to misdemeanor prosecutions initiated by indictment or presentment (meaning they were “presented or found by the grand jury”), but the statute was amended effective December 1, 2017, to clarify that it applies to all misdemeanors, however “charged,” thereby applying to prosecutions by warrant, summons, or other process. Additionally, the amended statute clarifies that if any pleading is defective, the state may dismiss the charge and institute a new prosecution for the same offense “within one year after the first shall have been abandoned by the state,” even if this means the new charging instrument falls outside the original two year window. See G.S. 15-1(a); State v. Madry, 140 N.C. App. 600 (2000) (applying prior version of statute to a dismissed warrant). However, if the pleading is not defective but the state voluntarily dismisses it anyway pursuant to G.S. 15A-931 (e.g., to pursue alternative charges in a new misdemeanor statement of charges), the new charging instrument would need to be issued within the original two-year window. See G.S. 15A-931(b) (“no statute of limitations is tolled by charges which have been dismissed pursuant to this section”); State v. Caudill, 68 N.C. App. 268 (1984).
    Finally, if the state voluntarily dismisses the charges with leave to reinstate (for example, when a defendant failed to appear for court), the state may re-initiate prosecution on the original charges (assuming they were timely and otherwise proper when initially charged), even if more than two years have now passed since the commission of the offense. G.S. 15A-932; see also State v. Reekes, 59 N.C. App. 672 (1982) (decided under prior speedy trial statute, but holding that speedy trial clock stopped running when prosecutor took dismissal with leave, and did not restart until proceedings were re-initiated). For more information, see the related entry on Failure to Appear: Reinstatement of a V/L case.
  3. Juvenile Cases
    A juvenile petition must be filed within 15 days after the complaint is received by the juvenile court counselor, but this can be extended for an additional 15 days (30 days total) in the chief court counselor’s discretion. G.S. 7B-1703. These time limits are “directory” rather than “mandatory,” so they do not deprive the court of jurisdiction to hear the case if they are not followed. See In re D.S., 364 N.C. 184 (2010); In re J.A.G., 206 N.C. App. 318 (2010).
    The juvenile court has exclusive, original jurisdiction over all offenses committed by a person under 16 years of age, and in most cases that jurisdiction automatically terminates when the person reaches age 18. See G.S. 7B-1501(7), 1601(b). However, if the juvenile is committed to a term of custody at a youth development center, the court may retain extended jurisdiction until the person reaches age 19 or 21, depending on the felony. G.S. 7B-1602.
    If a delinquency proceeding is initiated but not concluded before the person reaches age 18, the court retains limited jurisdiction for the purpose of determining whether the case will be dismissed or bound over to superior court for trial as an adult. G.S. 7B-1601(c). Similarly, a juvenile court may assert original jurisdiction over a person older than 18 for an offense committed while the person was a juvenile aged 13 to 16, for the limited purpose of determining whether to dismiss the charge or bind it over to superior court. G.S. 7B-1601(d).
    Effective December 1, 2019, there were significant changes made to the juvenile court age limitations. In short, the jurisdiction of the juvenile court has been expanded to include 16 and 17 year-olds for all offenses except motor vehicle violations and indirect contempt. However, once a juvenile has been convicted of any offense in district or superior court (presumably even a minor traffic offense), all subsequent offenses are prosecuted as an adult (even if that offense would have otherwise remained in juvenile court). Additionally, the juvenile court’s jurisdiction will continue indefinitely for purposes of conducting probable cause and transfer hearings, allowing the state to prosecute juveniles for felony offenses discovered after they have aged out of juvenile court. For a more thorough discussion of all these changes, see the related Juvenile entry on Basic Concepts and Recent Changes
  4. Other Statutory Deadlines
    1. After issuance of summons: G.S. 15A-303(d) provides that “[e]xcept for cause noted in the criminal summons by the issuing official, an appearance date may not be set more than one month following the issuance or reissuance of a criminal summons.”
    2. DWI trials involving motor vehicle forfeitures: G.S. 20-28.3(m) provides that “[d]istrict court trials of impaired driving offenses involving forfeitures of motor vehicles pursuant to G.S. 20-28.2 shall be scheduled on the arresting officer’s next court date or within 30 days of the offense, whichever comes first.”
    3. Probable cause hearings: See G.S. 15A-606(d) (setting deadline for holding probable cause hearing). For more details, see the related entry on Probable Cause Hearings
    4. Trial/administrative calendar: See G.S. 7A-49.4 (prosecutor’s responsibility for setting criminal calendar). For more details, see the related entry on Calendaring Duties
    5. Capacity to proceed: See, e.g., G.S. 15A-1007(d) (calendaring case for trial within 60 days after defendant has regained capacity to proceed). For more details and other deadlines, see the related entry on Capacity to Proceed
    6. Probation violations: See, e.g., G.S. 15A-1344(f) (jurisdiction to hold hearing on probation violation after period of probation has expired). For more details, see the related entry on Probation
Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2013 North Carolina Defender Manual, Volume I, Chapter 7.