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What are the Rights of Criminal Defendants?

When a person is charged with a crime, they become a criminal defendant. In order for the defendant to be convicted and punished for the crime, the government must bring a case against the defendant to prove that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The United State Constitution assures criminal defendants a number of rights which limit the manner in which the government can investigate, prosecute and punish criminal behavior. These include the right to remain silent, the right to representation, the right to a speedy, public jury trial, and the right not to be tried for the same crime twice (double-jeopardy).

  • The Right to Remain Silent – The criminal defendant has the right to remain silent. This right protects the defendant from self-incrimination during arrest and at trial. On the other hand, the criminal defendant also has the right to confront his accusers and to testify in his own behalf. The defendant’s lawyer will advise on when it is best to remain silent and when it is better to speak in self-defense.

  • The Right to Representation – Every criminal defendant facing jail or incarceration has the right to adequate legal representation. If the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for him by the government. Keep in mind that adequate representation does not mean that a defendant is entitled to perfect legal counsel, but it does protect him from being penalized for any serious blunders made by his lawyer. The criminal defendant also has the right to decline legal representation and represent himself. However, the legal system is complicated, and a criminal defendant has the best chances of a favorable result if he allows a legal advocate to help him navigate the system.

  • The Right To a Reasonable Bail – Criminal defendants may leave the holding cell provided that bail is given to ensure that the defendants return for the trial. Although the court does not have to post bail, 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 a Speedy, Public Jury Trial – Criminal defendants have the right to a public trial. This right ensures that the government will not conduct secret hearings that might violate his individual rights. On occasion however, a court will close a hearing to protect the identity of a victim (usually a minor.) A criminal defendant also has the right to be tried by a jury. The form of the jury varies from state to state, however 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 court does not guarantee any defendant a trial within a set amount of time; rather this right promotes judicial efficiency and prevents the parties from stalling for tactical purposes.

  • The Right to Confront Witnesses – The Sixth Amendment gives the accused the right to cross-examine or question witnesses. This right gives the defendant the ability to counter any testimony presented against him and helps the jury determine whether or not the witnesses are reliable. This right also compels the witness to face the accused in person as it is often believed that a person has a more difficulty lying about someone when the defendant is facing him or her directly. Only in rare cases may the witness avoid the obligation of having to confront the person accused.

  • The Right Not To Be Subjected To Cruel and Unusual Punishment If Convicted – The 8th Amendment prohibits inflicting punishments which are cruel and unusual if the defendant is convicted. This right guarantees that prisoners have access to basic medical treatment and that those convicted do not have sentences which are disproportionate to their crime. Life imprisonment without parole and the death penalty are only received for the most serious of crimes and inflicting these punishments on ordinary criminals would be a violation of the cruel and unusual restriction. The 8th Amendment, however, does not protect against unusual punishments which may be out of the ordinary, but a reasonable person would not think particularly cruel.

  • The Right Not To Be Tried Twice for The Same Crime (Double-Jeopardy) – Once a trial has been finally and properly conducted, the state may not retry the defendant for the same crime. Retrying a defendant for the same crime is often called “double-jeopardy” and it is prohibited in every state by the United States Constitution. A criminal defendant, however, may face civil claims in addition to the criminal charges. Also, a criminal defendant may be charged by the state government and by the federal government for the same crime.

The right to representation and the right to remain silent are contained in the 5th Amendment and are commonly referred to as the Miranda rights.