Prompt Presentment Crucial in Federal Court Cases

How long it takes before a defendant is presented for their first appearance before a magistrate is crucial. If the appearance was delayed, a confession or evidence may be in question.

As a criminal defense attorney, I have heard this story a number of times. The defendant was arrested, taken to an interrogation room, gives a confession and is presented before a magistrate. However, while this sounds like it all happens within a reasonable time frame, that isn’t always the case. In fact, if the defendant was delayed and confessed, or gave other evidence, defense counsel will likely attack the admissibility of the evidence and/or confession.

On a federal level there is a designated procedure for promptly presenting defendants to the court. In a nutshell it states that a confession should be achieved within six hours after arrest.

Here is how this rule came about. It harkens back to common law and when an arresting officer was mandated to bring a person under arrest before the court “as soon as he reasonably could” do so. In a landmark case dealing with federal agents who interrogated a defendant for days until they got a confession, the court said this was a violation of the prompt presentment rule.

Next came the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure that requires when an arrest is made, the defendant is to be taken before the court without unnecessary delay. Of course, the real question is what is considered to be an unnecessary delay, an issue that came up again in another case. That case dealt with a defendant who confessed 7 hours after being arrested and not being presented to a magistrate.

The Supreme Court held this was an unreasonable delay, which eventually resulted in something referred to as the McNabb-Mallory rule which states that confessions made during detention in violation of promptly being presented to the court are generally inadmissible.

Over the years, the law changed in response to an ongoing debate of the admissibility of confessions in violation of prompt presentment. In 1968 it became “that voluntary confessions are admissible; and that such confessions are not inadmissible “solely because of delay in bringing such person before a magistrate judge;” and voluntary confessions given within “six hours” immediately following arrest are admissible.

A recent case, decided by the Supreme Court, upset the apple cart; a case in which a man had been held 29.5 hours before being presented to court, time which included seeing a doctor to treat a minor cut and time during which he wrote out a confession to a bank robbery. The defendant filed a motion to suppress because of the period of time involved. His motion was denied because the court took off the time he was being treated by a doctor; a move that meant his confession was within the six hour time frame.

This wasn’t the end of this case. The trial court said his written statement of confession was admissible because he’d asked for a break from being interrogated. The Court of Appeals upheld the admissibility of the confession because they believed the confession was voluntarily given, thus, the time period of detention did not matter.  On appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the “pure volutariness test” and modified the McNabb-Mallory rule.

Has this issue been resolved? More or less, yes. The prevailing rule of thumb is now that a confession should be obtained within 6 hours of arrest, however, if the confession was obtained after the 6 hour window, the trial court must determine whether the delay to bring the arrestee before a magistrate was unreasonable or unnecessary under the McNabb-Mallory cases, and if so, then the confession would be suppressed.

Miller Leonard is a Denver federal criminal defense lawyer and Denver state criminal defense attorney. To learn more, visit or call 303.623.2721.