Your Rights in Court

If you're facing criminal charges and plan to defend yourself at trial, it's important to understand your rights in court. Because many of these rights are based on complex laws and constitutional amendments, you may want to enlist the help of a criminal defense attorney.

To get you started, here's an overview of the rights defendants enjoy in criminal court.

Your Right to a Lawyer in Court

Our founding fathers understood how complicated the law can be: they included a provision in the Sixth Amendment that provides the right to legal counsel to all people tried in American criminal courts. During a criminal case, a lawyer can provide a number of essential services, including:

  • Explaining the defendant's criminal rights;
  • Letting the defendant know what to expect during the course of the criminal case;
  • Working to protect the defendant's constitutional rights;
  • Examining facts and evidence relevant to the case;
  • Trying to work out a plea bargain to benefit the defendant;
  • Cross-examining witnesses for the prosecution during a trial;
  • Objecting to any improper behavior (such as questioning or use of evidence) during trial; and
  • Developing and presenting a legally sound defense.

In fact, our nation considers working with a lawyer so important that individuals who cannot afford to hire and retain an attorney also have the right to the services of a state-appointed attorney. They do not have to pay for these services.

Your Right against Incriminating Yourself

If you've ever heard someone say, "I plead the Fifth." you've heard about the right against self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment protects those accused of crimes from providing evidence against themselves.

The right against self-incrimination can take two major forms in court:

  • Refusal to testify. If you do not want to testify in your own case, you do not have to do so. Those who choose not to testify are understood to be exercising their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. However, if you choose to take the stand in your own case, you are not permitted to selectively answer questions. Testifying in your own trial is equivalent to waiving your Fifth Amendment right.
  • Refusal to answer specific questions. Witnesses called to testify can exercise their Fifth Amendment rights by refusing to answer specific questions during a trial. This is because witnesses can be legally compelled to take the stand (that is, they cannot refuse to testify as defendants can).

If you want to learn more about your rights against self-incrimination and how they might affect your criminal case, you can ask your lawyer for details.

Your Right to a Fair & Speedy Public Trial

Before the founding of the country, it was common practice for those with power (including the king) to keep legal proceedings closed to the public in order to ensure certain outcomes (regardless of whether the paths to those outcomes were legal).

That's why our Bill of Rights guarantees the right to a fair and speedy public trial. This means:

  • The outcome of the trial will be decided by a jury of peers. The jury members in a trial are made up of citizens from the area in which the accused lives (or in which the crime was committed).
  • The trial will happen in relatively good time. A number of factors can delay a criminal case, including an overcrowded criminal defense system, delays requested from either the prosecution or defense and more. But in ordinary circumstances, a trial must be held within a certain period of time of the original arrest. Otherwise, the charges may have to be dropped. For more detailed information about the "speedy trial"ť requirement, you can ask your defense lawyer.
  • Members of the public will be able to attend the trial, with certain exceptions. In order to make sure everyone in the court is following the rules, members of the public are permitted to witness proceedings. Public access may be limited in some cases, though, as when a trial involves a child whose identity needs to be protected.

Your criminal defense lawyer can play a major role in making sure your courtroom rights are protected throughout your case.

Your Right against Double Jeopardy

In the legal system, double jeopardy means being tried twice for the same single offense. Double jeopardy is prohibited, but it's a concept that's a little more complex than it might seem at first.

  • Jeopardy: Single jeopardy (or just jeopardy) begins during a trial, either when the jury is sworn in or (in trials without juries) when the first witness is sworn. When jeopardy is in place, the defendant is being tried for a specific crime.
  • Continuing jeopardy: Mistrials (those that end with a hung jury) and convictions that lead to appeals do not constitute double jeopardy. Rather, they fall into a category known as "continuing jeopardy."ť
  • Double jeopardy: This would involve trying one person for the same crime after an acquittal or conviction with no legal reason to do so.

For more information about any of your rights in court, you can contact a criminal defense lawyer.

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