Criminal Defendants’ Legal Rights

Criminal Defendants’ Legal Rights

What Legal Rights Does a Criminal Defendant Have?

Choosing not to testify is an important Constitutional right under the Fifth Amendment, but it certainly isn’t the only legal right to which criminal defendants are entitled.  Being criminally charged is a jarring experience, but understanding your rights can help to put your mind at ease as you and your loved ones prepare for the legal proceedings to come

The Due Process Clauses

Criminal defendants’ legal rights are collectively known as “due process.”  Due process is an absolutely fundamental concept which provides the basis for the U.S. criminal justice system as our society knows it.  Due process protects defendants, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty, from being harmed by illegal government actions.  For example, prosecutors cannot build a case on inadmissible evidence, or prosecute the same individual twice for the same crime (which is known as double jeopardy).

Without due process in place, defendants would be vulnerable to egregious violations of their Constitutional rights as U.S. citizens.  In fact, due process clauses are addressed in not one, but two portions of the Constitution: the Fifth Amendment, which shields against self-incrimination by protecting defendants from being forced to testify against themselves, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which deals with citizenship.

The Fifth Amendment

The due process clause contained in the Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury… nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  (In fact, you can see where this clause references both double jeopardy and “pleading the Fifth.”)

The Fourteenth Amendment

The due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

All criminal defendants have a Constitutional right to due process, regardless of whether they are being charged with petty retail theft (shoplifting), aggravated murder, or anything in between.  The severity of the charges do not impact the defendant’s basic rights as a U.S. citizen.

What Are My Rights as a Defendant?

Criminal defendants are protected by an array of legal rights, some of which we mentioned a little earlier in this article.  Don’t worry about memorizing your rights, or figuring out what to do or not do during trial or any preceding hearings such as your arraignment: your defense attorney will make sure that your rights are not violated, and will coach and prepare you for each stage of the process.

First and foremost, remember that you are presumed innocent.  The burden of proof falls upon the prosecutor, who must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Sixth Amendment

Under the Sixth Amendment, you have the right to be tried by a jury (unless you are being charged with a misdemeanor offense carrying less than six months of jail time).  That may not sound like much of a “right,” but in fact, the jury selection process is packed with important safeguards to ensure you are judged fairly and without prejudice.

The jury must be comprised of neutral and unbiased jurors, so the court screens potential jurors with questions to ensure they are capable of participating in a fair trial.  Then, your lawyer will ask the potential jurors even more questions, called “challenges for cause,” which are also designed to eliminate biased jurors.  Additionally, your lawyer can make a limited number of “peremptory challenges,” which are similar to challenges for cause but do not have to be justified with an explanation.

Furthermore, all jurors must agree on whether you are guilty or innocent.  Ohio Criminal Rule 31 provides that unless the jury is in unanimous agreement with regard to the verdict, you cannot be found guilty.  If the jury has mixed opinions, it’s called a “hung jury,” and the judge will declare a mistrial.  When this occurs, the prosecutor may attempt to try you again before a different jury.  (This does not amount to double jeopardy, because no verdict was ever reached.  Double jeopardy protects defendants who were decisively found not guilty from being tried a second time.)

The Sixth Amendment also gives you the right to confront any witnesses against you.  That means you (or your attorney) can challenge any testimony provided by the prosecutor’s witnesses.  Furthermore, under the Sixth Amendment you also have the right to a speedy trial so that you are not held in custody indefinitely.

Excerpts of this article were taken from a posting by attorney Darwin Overson of Overson & Sheen, Salt Lake City,Utah.

 

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