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Rights of Criminal Defendants

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What Are the Rights of Criminal Defendants?

When a person is charged with a crime, they become a criminal defendant. The government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before convicting and punishing a defendant for a crime.

The United States Constitution provides criminal defendants with many constitutional rights. These rights control how the government investigates, prosecutes and punishes criminal behavior. These include rights provided in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth amendments.

Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures:

  • Unreasonable Searches and Seizures: The United States Constitution requires probable cause for searches and seizures. The rationale is that the government may not use illegally obtained evidence against you in court. Although warrants are needed for a search or seizure, there are exceptions to the rule.

Fifth Amendment Rights

The Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination (the right to remain silent) and double jeopardy:

  • The Right to Remain Silent: Criminal defendants have the right to remain silent. This right protects the defendant from self-incrimination, commonly known as Miranda Rights, during arrest and at trial. Criminal defendants also have the right to confront accusers and to testify on their own behalf.
  • The Right Against Double Jeopardy: The United States Constitution prohibits the government from retrying a defendant for the same crime. This is called double jeopardy. Besides criminal charges, a criminal defendant can also face civil claims.

Sixth Amendment Rights

The Sixth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to legal representation, the right to a speedy trial, and the right to confront witnesses:

  • The Right to Representation: Every criminal defendant has the right to adequate legal representation. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the government will provide one. Keep in mind that adequate representation does not mean a right to perfect legal counsel. It does protect the defendant from serious legal blunders made by his lawyer. The criminal defendant also has the right to decline legal representation and represent himself.
  • The Right to a Speedy Trial: Criminal defendants have the right to a speedy public trial. This ensures that the government will not conduct secret hearings that might violate your individual rights. On occasion however, a court will close a hearing to protect the identity of a victim (usually a minor.) 
  • The Right to a Public Jury Trial: A criminal defendant also has the right to be tried by a jury. The form of the jury varies from state to state. All juries consist of members of the community randomly called by the court and selected by the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense. Additionally, criminal defendants have the right to a speedy trial. This right protects defendants from sitting in jail for long periods of time before their guilt has been established.
  • The Right to Confront Witnesses: The Sixth Amendment gives the accused the right to cross-examine or confront witnesses. This gives the defendant the ability to counter any testimony presented against him. This also helps the jury determine whether the witnesses are reliable. Additionally, this right allows the defendant to face the witness in person. Only in rare cases may the witness avoid the obligation of having to confront the defendant.

Eighth Amendment Rights

The Eighth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to a reasonable bail and the right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment:

  • The Right to a Reasonable Bail: Criminal defendants may leave the holding cell if bail is given to ensure that the defendants return for the trial. If the court does, the bail must not be excessive with regards to the severity of the crime and the person’s likelihood of fleeing.
  • The Right to Not Be Subjected to Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments if the defendant is convicted. This right guarantees prisoners access to basic medical treatment. It also guarantees that sentences are not disproportionate to their crime. For example, someone convicted of petty theft should not receive a sentence of life imprisonment without parole or death.

Should I Get an Attorney If I Am Charged with a Crime?

Yes. Legal representation can be crucial if you are charged with a crime. Criminal charges are life changing and it is in your best interest to get counsel. An experienced defense attorney can help protect your rights and represent you in court.

Photo of page author Jessica Tran

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 06-16-2015 02:09 PM PDT

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