It was 11 p.m. when law enforcement arrested 24-year-old Jimmy. They started asking him questions. Then, they handcuffed him and read him his Miranda rights.
"You have the right to remain silent," the police officer said. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense."
Police said a closed-circuit TV caught Jimmy's image as he struck an elderly pedestrian on the back of his head and stole his wallet. Jimmy said they had the wrong guy, and he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jimmy, who has $300 to his name, now faces serious charges. If a jury convicts him, he faces serious prison time. He loudly proclaims he is innocent. He has no resources to fight this fight — except for the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
What Does the Sixth Amendment Guarantee?
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Sixth Amendment is the right to a criminal defense lawyer. The right to legal counsel in a criminal prosecution means the government will foot a public defender's bill for some defendants.
The right to counsel only applies to criminal defendants whose charges put them at risk of imprisonment. The government will not appoint and pay for a public defender in criminal cases where the penalty is merely a fine. A public defender is an attorney employed by the state or federal government.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not apply to civil cases.
Appointment of Counsel
Both federal and state criminal justice systems have procedures for appointing counsel for indigent defendants. “Indigent" means the defendant has shown they cannot afford an attorney on their own. Two different appointment approaches are common:
- A judge may appoint a defense attorney who is in private practice.
- A judge may appoint a public defender.
The government only pays for a criminal defense lawyer if an indigent defendant faces prison time. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that all defendants facing imprisonment have the right to an attorney. So if the criminal charges carry a risk of jail time, regardless of whether the charges are felonies or misdemeanors, the government may appoint and pay for an attorney.
When Does the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Apply?
A court-appointed lawyer acts on the defendant's behalf before, during, and after the criminal trial. The critical stages of a criminal proceeding for which the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal counsel include:
Originally, the Sixth Amendment only applied to federal court cases. However, the Supreme Court determined in 1963 that criminal defendants have a right to counsel at the state level (Gideon v. Wainwright). There, the court stated that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause and doctrine of incorporation apply the right to criminal cases in state court.
The Process for Appointing Counsel for Indigent Defendants
Before the government appoints an attorney, a judge must decide if the defendant qualifies as indigent. That means a criminal defendant must show that they cannot afford a lawyer. Some states may still require the defendant to partially reimburse the appointed attorney.
The judge may review documentation of the accused's income, expenses, and available financial resources. Alternatively, they may take the defendant's word about their financial position. For example, an unhoused person may lack financial documentation. The judge's determination and process depend on various federal and state laws.
If the judge determines the defendant is indigent, they will appoint an attorney at the defendant's first court appearance. Most defendants' first court appearance is an arraignment or a bail hearing.
An accused person may waive their right to a free government-appointed attorney. The waiver must be made willingly and with full knowledge of the waiver's consequences. A defendant may also hire their own attorney or choose to represent themselves.
Additional Sixth Amendment Rights
While the right to a court-appointed attorney is perhaps the Sixth Amendment's most well-known guarantee, it also provides other vital rights to the accused. These rights include:
- The right to trial by an impartial jury
- The right to a speedy trial
- The right to a public trial
- The right to notice of charges
- The right for the jury to see and hear the witnesses' testimony and view the evidence against the defendant
- The right to be present at the trial and while the jury hears the case
- The right to see, hear, and cross-examine the witnesses against them (the confrontation clause)
- The right to call witnesses to testify and to have the court issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to appear
- The right to testify for oneself in court, should they choose to do so
The rights addressed in the Sixth Amendment and the protections of the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and 14th amendments exist to ensure defendants receive a fair trial.
Sixth Amendment Violations
Typically, all defendants have access to a criminal defense lawyer. However, simply having an attorney does not necessarily satisfy the Sixth Amendment rights. It is not enough for the court to appoint and pay for a defense lawyer. The lawyer must possess the competence to handle that type of case.
Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are common from those appealing a conviction. These litigants often argue that they only lost their cases because their attorneys' representation was inadequate.
The defendant is deprived of a fair trial when their lawyer is incompetent. Defendants who appeal on this ground must show that their attorney made enough mistakes or did not spend enough time on the case to be a competent advocate.
A defendant cannot make a valid claim for ineffective assistance of counsel just because their attorney lost their case. Instead, they must show that the attorney's representation was so flawed from a legal perspective that it deprived them of a fair trial. Generally, an attorney must zealously advocate for the defendant in a lawful, legitimate, and reasonable way. Assuming the attorney diligently researched the law and made informed decisions about the defense strategy, their litigation decisions are likely unchallengeable. However, missing deadlines or failing to prepare a defense may rise to the level of ineffective assistance.
Assert Your Sixth Amendment Rights: Consult With an Attorney
The right to counsel in a criminal trial is so important that it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It protects the critical right to a fair trial.
The earlier you have a lawyer, the more opportunities you will have to favorably shape your case for trial. To get started, consider contacting an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you. A criminal defense attorney can provide you with information and legal representation regarding the following:
A criminal defendant's rights are essential in a criminal case. If the government violates these rights, it can significantly affect your case. Contact a criminal defense attorney to further your defense and litigation strategy.