In this lesson, we will learn about the procedural rights of the accused. We will look at how these rights are defined and what they mean to our justice system today.
The Procedural Rights of the Accused
The procedural rights of the accused are defined as the general procedures and protections that the accused are afforded in our justice system. These rights are mainly contained within the Bill of Rights, which is the collective name for the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.
An individual who has been charged with a crime is afforded the protection that he is innocent until he is found guilty by a court. This individual is also afforded the right to have the state or federal government have the burden of proving him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Apart from these two fundamental protections afforded defendants in the criminal justice system, there are also other procedural rights guaranteed to him by the Bill of Rights.
The Right to Remain Silent
The right to remain silent is defined as the right to not be forced to say anything. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that a defendant 'cannot be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.' A defendant cannot be forced to testify in his own trial, and the defense attorney cannot force a defendant to speak.
For example, if a defendant is on trial because he is accused of stealing a book from a library, the prosecutor cannot call the defendant to testify to say if he committed the crime or not. Nor can the defense attorney force the defendant to testify in his own case. This is because the defendant has the right not to say anything at all.
The Right to Confront Witnesses
The right to confront witnesses is defined as the right to cross-examine the witnesses against you. This has also been called the confrontation clause and is contained within the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. This is important because the defendant should be able to 'confront' the witnesses that are accusing him of a crime face-to-face. In addition, the prosecutor can't just bring in written statements of the witnesses; she actually has to bring in the witnesses in person.
For example, if a defendant is accused of striking a police officer during a traffic stop, the defendant has a right to have the officer come into court and testify as to what happened during that stop and what injuries she may have received. There are several exceptions to this (such as young child victims), but in most cases, the defendant has the right to confront his accuser.
The Right to a Public Trial
The right to a public trial is defined as the right to have an open courtroom so the public can witness proceedings. This was important to our ancestors because of the fear of what would happen behind closed doors in secret proceedings. Therefore, the right to a public trial was incorporated into the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The presence of the public and the defendant's supporters in the courtroom proceedings ensures that the court will observe the rights of the defendant and conduct a fair hearing.
There are exceptions to the rule, however! What would happen if several witnesses to a crime were all allowed to sit in the courtroom while the other witnesses were testifying? Do you think there is a risk they would change their testimony in order to make it more similar to the other witnesses? Or do you think their own recollection of events may be tainted? Courts that have evaluated the right to a public trial have had the same concerns; therefore, if a witness is under subpoena to testify in a trial, they may be excluded from listening to the trial and being present in the courtroom unless it is time for them to testify themselves.
The Right to a Jury Trial
The right to a jury trial is defined as the right to be tried by a jury of the defendant's peers. This right is protected by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and is considered one of the most important of the defendant's procedural rights. It has been incorporated throughout the world.
This right is important for the same reasons as a public trial - in order to keep an open air of unbiased proceedings. The thought is that if the defendant can choose an anonymous jury of her peers, then the odds are good that the jury will be unbiased towards the defendant. When selecting a jury, the defendant cannot use factors such as race, sex, religion or national origin to not pick a certain juror. The reason jurors must be selected is because they are fair and impartial.
The Right to a Speedy Trial
The right to a speedy trial is defined as the right of a defendant to be brought to court within a reasonable time. This procedural right is given to the defendant via the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The time limits of the speedy trial right vary from state to state, but for the most part, it is up to the courts to determine 'how long has been too long.'
This procedural right is important because of the concern that a defendant would be arrested and not see the inside of a courtroom for an indeterminate amount of time. The fear of an individual languishing in jail without an attorney or court date set led to the enactment of this procedural right.
The Right to an Adequate Attorney
The right to an adequate attorney is defined as the right of a defendant to have an attorney for his defense who will do a reasonably good job. This right has been afforded to the defendant via the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, 'in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right.... to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.' What if the defendant cannot afford an expensive lawyer but still wants one? This procedural right has been interpreted to mean that if the defendant wants a lawyer but cannot afford one and is facing prison time of more than six months for the crime that the court must pay for a lawyer for the defendant.
Why is this important? This is important because some defendants may not have the education or mental ability to represent themselves (though the defendant always maintains the right to represent himself.) And therefore, if the defendant feels she needs help via consulting an attorney, then she should be able to receive it. This right has also been interpreted to mean that the lawyer who the defendant obtains must be one that does a 'reasonably' good job.
The procedural rights of those accused of crimes continue to be exercised and interpreted in courtrooms across the United States every day. It is these very rights that are maintained by the accused that make our justice system fair and effective.
The procedural rights of the accused are contained within the Bill of Rights. The two most basic rights are that a defendant is to be considered innocent until she is proven guilty and that it is the prosecutor's burden to prove her guilty. Additionally, the rights of a defendant to remain silent, to confront witnesses, to have public trials, to have jury trials, to have those trials happen quickly and to be represented by adequate counsel are what make our justice system fair and equitable.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Identify the two major protections to the accused
- Recognize the rights of the accused as promised by the Constitution
- Explain how courts continue to interpret these rights