It seemed routine: A Fairfax County, Va., homicide detective sent a teletype to the Prince William County jail, requesting that recently convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad be detained. Virginia police and prosecutors have long thought that a detainer serves merely as a request to “let us know when you’re ready to release him” and not as an arrest. Wrong, a judge ruled, the Washington Post reports. A detainer is equivalent to an arrest when it is sent from one county to another and starts the state’s five-month speedy trial clock for jailed defendants, said the ruling. For Muhammad, it meant the dismissal of his capital murder case in Fairfax in the Oct. 14, 2002, slaying of Linda Franklin.
The ruling in this case wasn’t catastrophic, because Muhammad has already received two death sentences. It may make life much harder for Virginia prosecutors in urban areas where defendants regularly are accused of crimes in more than one county. The ruling reinforced a 1993 Virginia Court of Appeals decision that said detainers start the speedy trial clock, and it may force prosecutors to devise new ways of monitoring defendants who are being held in other counties. James Plowman, prosecutor in Virginia’s Loudoun County, said: “When you send a detainer, that basically says, ‘When you’re done with ’em, we want ’em.’ That happens all the time.” He added: “There has to be some administrative way to let a jurisdiction know you’ve got pending charges without an arrest. Otherwise, people are going to walk out of jails and it’s left to other jurisdictions to find them again.”