Charged with a Crime? You Have Legal Rights

Defense

Charged with a Crime? You Have Legal Rights

If you have been charged with a crime, it is obviously an important matter that requires your immediate attention. Protecting your rights from the outset in such a situation is paramount, and the Bill of Rights is here to help. Better understanding your rights when facing a criminal charge can help you make the right decisions for you as you move forward in the legal process – and can help you protect your rights throughout the legal process. If you find yourself facing a criminal charge in the State of Texas, the first order of business is consulting with an experienced Killeen Criminal attorney.

RELATED READINGS: Your Constitutional Rights

The Fifth Amendment

The fifth Amendment has considerable rights to offer those who are accused of crimes in the United States.

First comes Indictment

The first is that – if you are accused of a felony (under the modern legal interpretation) – you cannot be prosecuted in a federal court until an indictment has been handed down by a grand jury. In the State of Texas, however, this translates to the right to have a preliminary hearing in which a judge decides if there is sufficient evidence to charge you with the crime in question and to proceed toward trial.

Double Jeopardy

The Fifth Amendment also protects you from double jeopardy, which means that you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. The exception to this is that if you have been found not guilty at the state or local level, this does not bar the federal government from trying you for the same crime. A famous example of this is the Los Angeles police officers who brutally attacked motorist Rodney King during the course of his arrest in the early 1990s. While all the officers were acquitted of the various charges levied against them at the state level, some were later charged and convicted in federal court for civil rights violations. Further, even if a person facing criminal charges in federal court is ultimately found not guilty, this does not preclude those harmed by his or her alleged criminal conduct from suing in civil court for monetary damages. A famous example of this is when O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife’s family famously sued him (and won) in civil court for her wrongful death.

Self-Incrimination

Included in the Fifth Amendment is the protection it provides against self-incrimination, which translates – in essence – to the right to remain silent. This protection is so pronounced and well accepted that there is a slang term for it – taking the fifth. We all have the right not to provide the court and not to provide law enforcement with evidence against ourselves that might amount to an admission of guilt or to an admission of responsibility for a specific crime. Further, when a defendant does not testify at his or her own trial, the prosecution cannot use this fact against the defendant – as evidence of guilt or to imply that an innocent person in the same situation would testify.

Your Miranda Rights

That right not to incriminate yourself was blasted into the public conscious by perhaps the most famous case name of all – Miranda v. Arizona. The upshot of this ruling is that suspects must be informed of their overarching right not to incriminate themselves before they can be interrogated in police custody. The tricky part here is that, if you are being questioned by the police but are free to leave (even if you do not necessarily understand that you are free to leave or feel like you are free to leave), there is no such right, and many police officers cleverly take advantage of this distinction.

Due Process of the Law

The Fifth Amendment also prohibits the government from depriving you of your life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Due process (brought to us by the Fourteenth Amendment) guarantees that we are all to be treated fairly and impartially by government officials when our freedoms are in jeopardy of being limited. In essence, this means that we cannot be detained by the government, our freedoms cannot be limited by the government, and our property cannot be taken away by the government – on a whim. In response, there is an entire body of procedural safeguards in place regarding the prosecution of crimes.

RELATED READINGS: When and How Should you Invoke Your Right to Remain Silent in Texas?

The Sixth Amendment

Once charged with a crime – and after indictment – the next stage is the trial itself (if a plea bargain is not reached in the interim). These criminal trials are governed by provisions set forth in the Sixth Amendment.

The Right to a Speedy, Public Trial

The Sixth Amendment provides us with the right to a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury. There is not, however, an actual limit on how long it can take for a trial to go to court. The Supreme Court has determined that any excessive delays must be duly justified and carefully balanced against any potential harm the defendant may suffer as a result. This speedy trial requirement protects defendants from being detained without end by the government.

There are, however, exceptions to the portion of this right that requires a public trial. When a public trial is determined to undermine the defendant’s absolute right to a fair trial, the trial can proceed behind closed doors. Prosecutors, however, can request closed hearings in only the narrowest circumstances (typically to protect witnesses against some kind of retaliation or to protect classified information in the process). Further, the accused have the right to a trial in the state and district in which the alleged crime was committed, but defendants can request a change of venue if there are extenuating circumstances, such as pretrial publicity, that would make it more difficult (or impossible) for them to get a fair trial in the proposed location.

The Right to an Impartial Jury

The requirement that a jury is impartial is a pillar of the Sixth Amendment, and toward this end, both the prosecution and the defense are allowed to reject potential jurors whom either side believes may be incapable of impartially deciding the case (without prejudice of any kind). However, courts find that the composition of the jury as a whole can also be deemed prejudicial, and potential jurors cannot be excluded due to factors such as their race or sex (for example).

The Right to Present Witnesses

Those accused of crimes have the following rights:

  • To present witnesses in their own defenses

  • To compel these witnesses to testify if necessary

  • The right to confront and cross-examine any of the prosecution’s witnesses

Generally, the only testimony that is accepted in a criminal trial must be provided in the courtroom, and cross-examination must be allowed. Any testimony by one person regarding what another person said is considered hearsay and is generally not admissible in court unless one of the following applies:

  • It was a dying declaration made by someone prior to passing.

  • It was an admission of guilt made by the accused.

The judge has the discretion to exclude any testimony he or she deems either irrelevant or prejudicial.

The Right to an Attorney

The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to legal counsel for anyone accused of a serious crime. While the states used to take a more haphazard approach to this right, this practice changed for the better in 1963 with the Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision. In this case, a penniless drifter, Clarence Gideon, was accused of stealing cash and other valuables from a pool hall. He was denied a lawyer, tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison. While languishing in prison – and without legal assistance – Gideon wrote a handwritten legal appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which ultimately agreed to hear his case. The upshot was that the justices unanimously ruled that Gideon – and anyone else accused of a serious crime – is entitled to the legal assistance of a lawyer (regardless of his or her ability to pay) as part of the general right to due process that includes the right to a fair trial. Over time, this right has been extended to overturn convictions in which defendants (through no fault of their own) had ineffective or incompetent attorneys.

The Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment addresses the following matters:

  • Excessive bail

  • Excessive fines

  • The infliction of cruel and unusual punishment

Excessive Bail

Bail refers to money paid by a defendant that allows him or her to be freed from confinement while his or her trial is pending (and while he or she takes the appropriate steps to adequately defend himself or herself at trial). Because many defendants cannot afford the bail that is set in their cases, they turn to bail bond companies that require an upfront percentage of the total bail amount (from the defendant) to cover the bail bond company’s payment of the full amount (allowing the defendant to make bail). When the trial begins, and the defendant appears, the bail money is returned to the bail bond company, which also keeps the upfront percentage paid by the defendant (as payment for the service). The vast majority of those facing trial do show up for their trial dates, and those who are considered to be a flight risk can be denied bail in the first place. However, it is rare that a bail amount is successfully challenged as being excessive.

Excessive Fines

Similarly, those fines imposed on those defendants who are ultimately convicted are rarely struck down as being excessive. In fact, the Supreme Court has defined fines as reaching the level of excessive when they are so grossly excessive as to amount to deprivation of property without due process of law (or as being grossly disproportional to the gravity of a defendant’s offense) – a very high bar no matter how you interpret it.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Perhaps the most complicated matter addressed by the Eighth Amendment is its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has never drawn a hard line in relation to cruel and unusual punishment, and it has generally allowed most penalties that come before it. In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has issued a number of rulings that narrow the death penalty’s application considerably, including:

  • Defendants with mental disabilities cannot receive the death penalty.

  • Defendants who were not yet 18 when the crime in question was committed (even if the crime is punishable by the death penalty) cannot receive the death penalty.

  • The Court typically rejects the death penalty for crimes that do not result in another person’s death (including rape cases).

  • The Court also tends to strike down those laws that, in certain circumstances, require the death penalty.

It is important to note here that the United States remains in a group of 10 countries with the highest number of executions worldwide (lumping us in with a group that includes North Korea and Iraq – and that is, ultimately, less than flattering). With the wave of dozens of cases in which those executed were subsequently exonerated by DNA evidence, however, the needle may be moving in relation to the public’s opinion regarding the death penalty.

Do Not Delay Consulting with an Experienced Killeen Criminal Attorney

If a criminal charge has been levied against you in the State of Texas, it is time to address the matter head-on, and Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard – proudly serving Killeen, Texas – is a well-respected criminal lawyer who is both well prepared and well-positioned to help. Mr. Pritchard has a long and impressive track record of successfully defending the rights of clients like you – in the skilled pursuit of their cases’ best possible outcomes – and is also here for you. Our legal team has the experience, drive, and legal insight to help you, so please do not wait to contact or call us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.

RELATED READINGS: 

Criminal Defense FAQ

Texas Criminal Procedure from A to Z 

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