Promptness of charges questioned in Supreme Court's review of case

November 28, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON FHC CTB — WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court raised the possibility yesterday that it may create an entirely new constitutional right for people accused of crime.

In an unusual order, the court told lawyers in a Reston, Va., man's case to offer arguments on whether individuals have a right to be told promptly that criminal charges have been filed against them.

In the past, the court had ruled that the Constitution assures those accused of crimes that the government cannot wait long periods of time before starting a trial on those charges.

That right to a "speedy trial" comes under the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

Yesterday, the justices said they were interested in the possibility that the same amendment also includes a right to quick disclosure of the fact that charges have been issued -- possibly creating a chance for those who may have committed "past crimes" to live in peace if the government makes no move to arrest them, or otherwise keeps them in the dark about accusations.

The court raised the new issue in telling lawyers to return for a new hearing in the case of 34-year-old Marc G. Doggett.

For eight years and seven months after he had been accused by a grand jury of illegally importing cocaine, Mr. Doggett was never told of the indictment. For two years, he lived in Colombia, teaching English.

He then lived a normal life in Reston for six years, his only violations

of law being three traffic tickets.

In 1988, however, his name turned up in a government computer check of credit bureaus seeking the whereabouts of fugitives. Mr. Doggett was arrested and learned for the first time of the charges against him. He pleaded guilty on condition he could appeal to challenge the long delay in government action. A federal appeals court rejected his challenge last year.

The Supreme Court held a hearing on the case in October. At that

time, the justices raised the possibility of a new reading of the Sixth Amendment.

Yesterday, the court ordered a new hearing next year in the case of Doggett vs. U.S. (No. 90-857), with lawyers to argue whether the amendment assures citizens a right to be "free from the fear of secret or unknown indictments for past crimes."

Other Supreme Court actions

* AIDS lawsuits. The justices agreed to decide whether the American Red Cross may be sued in state courts for supplying blood that is contaminated with the AIDS virus, if a patient gets the disease from a transfusion. The Red Cross insists it has a right under federal law to have only federal courts rule on lawsuits against it. Lower courts are split on the issue. American National Red Cross vs. S. G. (No. 91-594).

* Airline fares. The court agreed to rule on the power of states to require airlines to disclose in advertising the full price passengers will have to pay. A federal court ruled that states have no power to use their laws against deceptive ads against airlines, blocking a nationwide attempt by state officials to force airlines to show in their ads the full price of a ticket, including any surcharges. The outcome of the case will affect Maryland and at least 33 other states. Morales vs. Trans World Airlines (No. 90-1604).

* Taxes on pensions. The court said it would settle a conflict among lower courts over the right of military retirees to equal treatment under state income tax laws. The issue, in a Kansas case, is whether pensions for former military personnel must be exempted from state taxes, if pensions for other former public employees are not taxed. The impact on Maryland taxes is unclear, since the state taxes all pensions the same, except for a special break for retired enlisted men and women, who get an exemption on their first $2,000 of retirement benefits. Barker vs. Kansas (No. 91-611).

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