Rights Guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment
Jessica gets a call in the middle of the night that her son was arrested for drunk driving after crashing into a utility pole. Unfortunately, this is his third DUI in less than 3 years, so he's facing prison time. Jessica lost her job recently and is barely making ends meet, so she won't be able to hire an attorney for her son. Fortunately for Jessica, her son has the right to a government-funded lawyer under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal counsel at all significant stages of a criminal proceeding. This right is so important that there is an associated right given to people who are unable to pay for legal assistance to have counsel appointed and paid for by the government. Both the federal and state criminal justice systems have procedures for appointing counsel for indigent defendants.
When Does the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel Apply?
Access to a criminal lawyer is the most well-known aspect of the Sixth Amendment. This right to counsel has been extended to the following stages of the criminal justice process:
- The interrogation phase of a criminal investigation;
- The trial;
- Sentencing; and
- At least an initial appeal of any conviction.
As previously mentioned, if an individual can't afford to hire their own criminal defense lawyer, a public defender will represent them. This lawyer can act on their behalf before, during, and after the trial.
The Process for Appointing Counsel for Indigent Defendants
Before a defendant can have a counsel appointed for them, a judge must decide if they qualify as an indigent defendant. The judge determines this based on state and federal guidelines. Although the specific guidelines will depend on the jurisdiction, determining whether or not a person is indigent usually involves reviewing their income and other financial resources. If the judge finds that a defendant is indigent, they'll appoint a public defender.
This attorney will be compensated at the government's expense if the defendant could possibly be imprisoned for a period of more than six months. In reality, judges almost always appoint attorneys for indigent individuals in practically every case in which a jail sentence is a possibility regardless of how long the sentence may be. Generally, a judge will appoint the attorney for an indigent defendant at the defendant's first court appearance. For most defendants, the first court appearance is an arraignment or a hearing to set bail.
Additional Sixth Amendment Rights
While the right to counsel is probably the most commonly known right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, there are other rights afforded to individuals under this amendment. These rights include:
- A trial by a jury (in most cases).
- The jury to hear all of the witnesses and see all of the evidence.
- Presence at the trial and while the jury is hearing the case.
- The opportunity to see, hear, and confront the witnesses presenting the case against them.
- The opportunity to call witnesses and to have the court issue subpoenas to compel the witnesses to appear.
- The chance to testify themselves should they choose to do so.
- The option to refuse to testify.
- The right to cross-examine the witnesses giving testimony against them.
- The right to compel the state to prove its case against them beyond a reasonable doubt.
All of these rights are in place to ensure that a defendant receives a fair trial.
Assert Your Sixth Amendment Rights: Consult with an Attorney
The right to counsel in a criminal trial is so important it's enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. While this particular constitutional right to counsel applies once an interrogation phase begins, there's nothing preventing you from obtaining a lawyer before that point. In fact, the earlier you have a lawyer, the more opportunities you'll have to favorably shape your case for trial. Get started today and contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer near you.