Rights of Criminal Defendants

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 What Are Criminal Charges?

Criminal charges are formal accusations that are made by a government authority. These accusations assert that a defendant has committed a crime.

A defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty. Defendants also have the right to be notified when they are being accused of committing a criminal offense.

This notice is provided by a charging document that informs the defendant of the charges, which are sometimes referred to as counts, being brought against them.

Charging documents may come in different forms, including:

Criminal charges do not indicate a defendant’s guilt or innocence. They simply inform the defendant of any pending counts that are being brought against them.

Once a defendant is informed of charges against them, they can enter a plea, which may be:

  • Guilty;
  • Not guilty; or
  • No-contest.

Can a Person Be Charged with Multiple Crimes?

Yes, a defendant can be charged with multiple crimes. For example, there are certain categories of charges that are closely related.

A burglary charge often includes breaking and entering, which may be listed as separate counts, depending on the jurisdiction. Depending on the case, the way the counts are listed may affect the way sentencing is handed down in the case.

What Are the Rights of Criminal Defendants?

The moment that an individual is arrested and charged with a crime, they become a criminal defendant. A criminal defendant has rights that arise at the moment that they are arrested.

A defendant’s rights in a criminal trial are provided by the United States Constitution as well as statutes that provide information on how the government investigates, prosecutes and punishes criminal behavior.

The following is a discussion of the most common rights in criminal cases that are available to criminal defendants.

Understanding Your Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides protections for defendants against unreasonable searches and seizures. This amendment states that the government must have probable cause to conduct searches and seizures.

The rationale behind this rule is that law enforcement officers may not search an individual without reasonable grounds. In addition, any illegally obtained evidence may not be used against a criminal defendant in court.

Understanding Your Fifth Amendment Rights

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against self-incrimination, or provides the right to remain silent, and double jeopardy. The right to remain silent means that a defendant cannot “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

In other words, the defendant may choose to remain silent. This means that the judge, defense attorney, or prosecutor cannot force a defendant to testify.

This right to remain silent also protects a defendant from self-incrimination, commonly referred to as Miranda Rights, during their arrest and at trial. This protection is only given to criminal defendants.

Civil defendants, on the other hand, may be forced to testify as a witness in a civic case. The right not to face double jeopardy is also provided to criminal defendants.

The double jeopardy clause provides that no individual shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” In other words, double jeopardy protects a defendant from being put on trial more than once for the same offense.

It is important to note that there are two exceptions to this rule. First, a defendant may face charges in both state and federal court for the same crime.

The second exception is that a defendant may be brought once to civil court and once to criminal court based on the same offense or incident.

Understanding Your Sixth Amendment Rights

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides defendants with several rights, including:

The Sixth Amendment provides that, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Criminal defendants have the right to adequate legal representation.

If a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court will appoint them a public defender. In addition, the Sixth Amendment provides criminal defendants with the right to a speedy public trial.

The clause does not provide a time limit. Courts typically have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the defendant’s trial has been unconstitutionally delayed.

Each jurisdiction has statutes that set time limits for moving cases from the filing of the initial charge to trial to help ensure the defendant’s rights are protected. The Sixth Amendment also provides a defendant the right to be tried by a jury in an open public forum.

This means that the courtroom can be open to:

  • Family;
  • Friends; and
  • The press.

Criminal defendants also have the right to be tried by a jury of their peers. Although the form of juries varies from state to state, every jury consists of members of the community that are called randomly by a court and who are selected by the lawyers who are litigating the case.

In general, a unanimous verdict is required to convict a defendant. In the event of a hung jury, or when the jury cannot reach a decision, the prosecutor may choose to retry the case or the defendant may be acquitted, or go free.

The Sixth Amendment provides defendants with the right to confront witnesses, or look them in the eye. This provides the defendant with the ability to counter any testimony that is presented against them during cross-examination.

Understanding Your Eighth Amendment Rights

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides criminal defendants with the right to a reasonable bail and prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The right to a reasonable bail means that the amount of bail must be equivalent to the severity of the crime and the individual’s likelihood of fleeing.

Bail is set by the court. It cannot be excessive.

The Eighth Amendment also prohibits cruel and unusual punishment if the defendant is convicted. This right guarantees a defendant access to proportionate sentences as well as basic human rights during their incarceration.

Can Criminal Charges be Reduced or Dropped?

In certain cases, the criminal charge or charges against a defendant may be reduced or dropped. This will depend on the laws of the individual state as well as the facts of each case.

In many cases, if the defendant has a valid defense, for example, self-defense or intoxication, it may give the defendant an opportunity to receive a lesser charge or a lesser sentence. Charges may be dropped in some cases if there is a lack of evidence.

In some cases, a defendant’s charges may be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. This reduction may occur if sufficient evidence is not provided to prove the felony charge but there is sufficient evidence to prove a lesser charge.

For example, in a case where there is not enough evidence to prove aggravated assault but there is enough to prove simple assault. This commonly arises if an offense is a wobbler.

A wobbler offense is an offense that may be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony, depending on the facts of the case.

Should I Get an Attorney if I am Charged with a Crime?

If you have been charged with a crime, it is essential to consult with a criminal lawyer. Criminal charges and convictions may be life-changing.

Your lawyer can help protect your rights as a defendant and represent your interests. Your attorney can assist during negotiation for a fair plea bargain and represent you during the complex trial process.

As noted above, if you are not able to afford a private attorney, a court-appointed attorney will be provided for you.


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