Criminal Law:

Rights in the Court Room

There are a number of rights afforded to suspects of criminal offenses in the courtroom. The most important of these include:

1. Right against self-incrimination: The Fifth Amendment provides individuals the right to refuse to answer any questions or make any statements, when to do so would help establish that the person committed a crime or is connected to any criminal activity.

At trial, the Fifth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right not to testify. This means that the prosecutor, the judge, and even the defendant's lawyer cannot force the defendant to take the witness stand at trial, if he or she does not want to do so. Furthermore, when a defendant exercises his or her right not to testify, the jury is not permitted to take that refusal into consideration when deciding whether the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged.

It is important to note that, after a defendant does take the stand and testify at trial, he or she cannot ordinarily choose to answer some questions but not others. Rather, the defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege is deemed waived through the act of testifying.

The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination does not apply when a defendant is fingerprinted, or made to provide a DNA sample in connection with a criminal case. In other words, a defendant may not refuse to submit to these procedures by asserting the Fifth Amendment privilege.

At a criminal trial, it is not only the defendant who enjoys the Fifth Amendment privilege. Witnesses who are asked to testify can refuse to answer certain questions by asserting their Fifth Amendment rights, if to answer would implicate them in any type of criminal activity.

2. Right to counsel: The right to an attorney is found in the Sixth Amendment. It requires the "assistance of counsel" for the accused "in all criminal prosecutions." This means that a defendant has a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney during trial and also that if the defendant cannot afford an attorney, in almost all instances the government will appoint one to handle the case, at no cost to the defendant.

Courts have interpreted the Sixth Amendment right to counsel as guaranteeing the "effective assistance of counsel" to criminal defendants. It does not matter whether the attorney is hired by the defendant or appointed by the government. However, questionable strategic choices made by an attorney do not usually cause a conviction to be thrown out, unless it is clear that the attorney's incompetence affected the outcome of the case.

3. Right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury: This means that a criminal defendant must be brought to trial for his or her alleged crimes within a reasonably short time after arrest, and that before being convicted of most crimes, the defendant has a constitutional right to be tried by a jury, which must find the defendant guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." 

4. Right against double jeopardy: Double jeopardy is a procedural defense that forbids that a defendant be tried twice for the same crime on the same set of facts. There are five primary reasons for this; it is to:

  • Prevent the government from employing its superior resources to wear down and erroneously convict innocent persons
  • Protect individuals from the financial, emotional, and social consequences of successive prosecutions
  • Preserve the finality and integrity of criminal proceedings, which would be compromised were the government allowed to arbitrarily ignore unsatisfactory outcomes
  • Restrict prosecutorial discretion over the charging process
  • eliminate judicial discretion to impose cumulative punishments that are otherwise not clearly prohibited by law.