If you read the Bill of Rights, you will see the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” a concept that has endured since the 18th century. It ensures that any American citizen charged with a crime will receive a fair trial. The founding fathers established a structure meant to keep the government from abusing its power and ensure that individuals receive due process of law. The Constitution sets forth certain protections for anyone accused of a crime as well as requirements that must be met before that person can be convicted.
Know your rights
If you are ever charged with a crime, you have certain rights. The most obvious of these is that you have the right to legal representation. Next, you have the right to remain silent in the face of questioning until you have spoken with an attorney. If you cannot afford to hire an attorney, the government will appoint one for you. Finally, you have a right to know the charges that have been made against you.
Fifth Amendment protection
Someone who refuses to answer questions in court can “plead the Fifth.” This refers to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides protection from self-incrimination. In other words, the defendant can refuse to testify during a trial. The Fifth Amendment also allows for the accused to gather his or her own witnesses and evidence.
Trial by jury
If accused of a crime, you have the right to a trial by jury. Depending on the severity of the crime, a grand jury indictment may be necessary before your case goes to court. The grand jury is composed of citizens who will decide whether there is enough evidence against you to proceed. A concept that has been in force since colonial days, the convening of a grand jury is a legal step meant to protect you against inappropriate prosecution.
Rights afforded by the Sixth Amendment
Your rights are expanded by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, and they include:
- Speedy trial: If a delay in trial lasts beyond a year, it is deemed “presumptively prejudicial,” considered to be in violation of your Sixth Amendment rights and cause for acquittal.
- Public trial: Although you have the right to a public trial, you may request a closed trial, given certain circumstances.
- Notice of Accusation: You must be completely informed of all accusations against you.
- Confrontation: Defense has the right to cross-examine witnesses, and, as the defendant, you have the right to provide your own witnesses favorable to the case.
- Impartial Jury: A jury must be composed of a cross-section of the community, and members must be free of prejudice or bias.
- Counsel: You have the right to be represented by an attorney, but self-representation is also granted as a right under this amendment.
Your next step
If you are accused of a crime, whether misdemeanor or felony, you should seek legal help as soon as possible. Remember that you innocent until proven guilty. An attorney experienced with criminal law will study all the facts relevant to your case, explain your legal options and go to work to provide you with the best possible outcome.