Legal Rights

Legal Rights

Defendant’s Rights

The Bill of Rights provides amendments to the Constitution of the United States to provide rights to ensure fair treatment for criminal defendants.

The two fundamental aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system is: The presumption that the defendant is innocent and The burden on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal defendants have other rights also. These are mainly defined in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Defendant’s Right to Remain Silent

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that a defendant cannot “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” If the defendant chooses to remain silent, the prosecutor cannot call the defendant as a witness, nor can a judge or defense attorney force the defendant to testify.

The Defendant’s Right Not to Be Placed in Double Jeopardy.

The Fifth Amendment contains this provision: “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This provision, known as the double jeopardy clause, protects defendants from harassment by preventing them from being put on trial more than once for the same offense.

The Defendant’s Right to Be Represented by an Attorney

The Sixth Amendment provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” A judge must appoint an attorney for indigent defendants (defendants who cannot afford to hire attorneys) at government expense. A judge normally appoints the attorney for an indigent defendant at the defendant’s first court appearance. For most defendants, the first court appearance is either an arraignment or a bail hearing.

The Defendant’s Right to Confront Witnesses

The “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to “be confronted by the witnesses against” them. This gives defendants the right to cross-examine witnesses. The Sixth Amendment prevents secret trials and, except for limited exceptions, forbids prosecutors from proving a defendant’s guilt with written statements from absent witnesses.

The Defendant’s Right to a Public Trial

The Sixth Amendment guarantees public trials in criminal cases. This is an important right, because the presence in courtrooms of a defendant’s family and friends, ordinary citizens, and the press can help ensure that the government observes important rights associated with trials.

The Defendant’s Right to a Jury Trial

The Sixth Amendment gives a person accused of a crime the right to be tried by a jury. This right has long been interpreted to mean a 12-person jury that must arrive at a unanimous decision to convict or acquit. Potential jurors must be selected randomly from the community, and the actual jury must be selected by a process that allows the judge and lawyers to screen out biased jurors.

The Defendant’s Right to a Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment gives defendants a right to a “speedy trial.” However, it does not specify exact time limits. Thus, judges often have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a defendant’s trial has been so delayed that the case should be thrown out. In making this decision, judges look at the length of the delay, the reason for the delay and whether the delay has prejudiced (harmed) the defendant’s position.