Right to Counsel: Amendment, Cases & History

Instructor: Janell Blanco
In this lesson, we will discuss the right to counsel. There are several cases that have changed the right to counsel throughout history, and these cases will also be discussed in this lesson.

Sixth Amendment

Luke was mad at himself for getting another driving under the influence charge, and now he was going to be facing jail time. He wanted to speak to a lawyer to discuss his options, and he wanted to know how long he could be in jail and what was going to happen in court. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gives Luke and other criminal defendants the right to counsel.

The right to counsel gives a defendant the right to have a lawyer assist in their defense, even if they cannot afford an attorney. Luke can request counsel at any time from the point of his arrest to his court hearing and even during sentencing. This was not always the situation with the right to counsel because the defendant's rights have changed through the course of history.

There have been several court cases in history that have helped further define the defendants' rights to counsel. Let's look at some important cases that helped define the right to counsel.

Ability to Pay for Counsel

In the case of Betts v. Brady in 1942, Betts was denied counsel because of the inability to pay for counsel. Before this case, defendants were allowed counsel based only on certain circumstances. If the defendant was illiterate, then they would be granted counsel because being illiterate would be a special circumstance. Additionally, the right to counsel was only granted to defendants who were not facing felony charges.

The ruling from Betts v. Brady was later overturned by Gideon v. Wainright. Prior to March 16, 1963, felony defendants were not given the option to counsel if they could not afford it. The Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainright that felony defendants at both the state and federal levels were allowed legal counsel regardless of ability to pay.

When to Obtain Counsel

In 1976, the Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of Brewer v. Williams that a defendant has the right to counsel when the judicial proceedings for the defendant have started. The ruling defined judicial proceedings as formal charges, preliminary hearings, indictment, or arraignment.

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