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Wyoming Prisoner Not Denied Right to Speedy Trial, Properly Denied Continuance

The Wyoming Supreme Court has held that a prisoner was not denied the right to a speedy trial and that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by denying the prisoner’s motion for continuance.

Rene Vargas, a prisoner at the Wyoming State Penitentiary (WSP) facing drug conspiracy charges, filed a demand for a speedy trial that was granted by the District Court of Carbon County. The set trial date, however, was later rescheduled approximately 31 days past the maximum speedy trial date. One week before trial, Vargas chose to proceed pro se and requested a continuance. The district court denied the continuance and Vargas was subsequently convicted of all charges at trial. Vargas appealed, arguing that he had been denied the right to a speedy trial and that the district court had erred in denying his request for a continuance. On April 23, 2014, the Wyoming Supreme Court rejected Vargas’s claim and affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Vargas, incarcerated at WSP, was suspected by prison officials of smuggling drugs into the prison with the help of his ex-wife, Angeline Vargas (“Angeline”), who visited him. Investigators questioned Angeline at one of these visits, and she admitted bringing marijuana and morphine to Vargas. Charged on December 29, 2011 with two counts each of conspiring to deliver a drug and conspiring to smuggle a drug into prison, Vargas was appointed a public defender, as was Angeline, who also faced charges.

On March 1, 2012 – evidently the month Vargas was arraigned – Vargas filed a demand for a speedy trial in the district court. His request was granted, and his trial date being set for August 14, 2012. Beginning on April 12, 2012, Vargas made his first complaint against his lawyer, claiming a conflict of interest as the public defender’s office represented both Vargas and Angeline. After several complaints, the district court determined at a hearing that no conflict existed. Vargas complained further but without a sound reason from him, the court refused to appoint him new counsel. He then decided to keep his attorney.

On July 31, 2012, the district court rescheduled Vargas’ hearing one week before the trial date “due to a burdensome trial docket”; Vargas sought permission to represent himself and requested a continuance. The district court allowed him to represent himself but denied the request for continuance. Vargas’s trial began on October 10, 2012, and after a two day trial, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to concurrent prison terms of seven to ten years on two counts and two to three years on the other two counts.

On appeal, Vargas argued that he was denied the right to a speedy trial and that the district court abused its discretion by denying his motion for continuance without good reason which prevented him from preparing a defense.

According to Vargas, 201 days elapsed from his arraignment to his trial. The Wisconsin Supreme Court looked to W.R.Cr. P. 48 (b) and its subsections to determine if Vargas was denied the federal constitutional right to a speedy trial. The rule requires a defendant to be brought to trial within 180 days after his arraignment but allows on exception to the limitation if “[r]equired in the due administration of justice and the defendant [would] not be substantially prejudiced.” The Court found that this exception was satisfied by the “Court’s busy docket” and Vargas’s failure to object or to demonstrate prejudice. The Court also rejected Vargas’s argument that he had a right to be at the hearing rescheduling he trial date.

The Court further found that Vargas was not denied the right to a speedy trial under federal law. While similar to the state rule, it additionally requires a court to determine “[t]he length of the delay” and “The defendant’s assertion of the right.” The appellate court held that the delay between the first trial date and the second “Only amounted to a delay of 56 days” and that Vargas could not show prejudice due to “Lengthy pretrial incarceration,” “Pretrial anxiety” or “Impairment of the defense.” Also, the Court pointed out that Vargas never reasserted his right to a speedy trial after the rescheduling of the trial.

The Court then turned to Vargas’s abuse of discretion claim. In concluding that the district court acted reasonably in denying his motion for a continuance, the appellate court recounted Vargas’s repeated complaints about his attorney before Vargas had finally decided to “Stick with her” until choosing to proceed pro se one week before trial despite warnings from the district court that it was not advisable. Vargas filed to justify why his attorney should have been dismissed or to otherwise meet his “Burden of coming forward with a reason for his delay in requesting a continuance.” See: Vargas v. State, Supreme Court of Wyoming, Case No. S-13-0084.

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Related legal case

Vargas v. State