The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects important rights for people who are accused of committing a crime. Like the Fifth Amendment, it keeps the government from using its power to unfairly prosecute citizens.
Right to a Speedy Trial
The Constitution declares that all defendants be given a speedy trial. When determining whether a government has violated this right, a court would consider four factors:
- The length of the delay.
- The reasons for the delay.
- Whether or not the defendant asserted their Sixth Amendment right.
- How the delay might prejudice a jury against them.
The Supreme Court ruled that if a defendant’s right to a speedy trial has been violated by the state, the charges against them must be dropped.
Trials must also be open to the public. However, in some cases, the court might limit public access if it seems necessary to protect the defendant, any victims, or national security. A defendant can also request to have a closed trial, but they must prove that publicizing the proceedings would prevent a fair trial.
Right to Impartial Jury
Most of the time, a citizen accused of a crime has a right to be tried in front of a jury. However, if the offense carries a sentence of six months or less, a judge might try the case in some states.
Juries aren’t allowed to be biased for or against the defendant. Members of the jury must also represent the population of the community in which the crime was allegedly committed.
Right to Notice of Changes
Every citizen has the right to be notified of the “nature and cause” of an accusation against them. This means the state is required to formally present charges against the accused. This is typically done with an indictment, which is a list of the charges that the state is filing against the defendant. This indictment is read in open court and the presiding judge makes sure the defendant understands the allegations against them.
The Right to Confront Witnesses
Anyone who has been charged with a crime must be allowed to confront and question witnesses testifying against them. This means they – or, more commonly, their lawyers – will be able to question these witnesses in open court to determine the validity of their claims during trial.
Defendants are also enabled to bring witnesses on their behalf to provide testimony that might exonerate them. These individuals might decide to testify voluntarily, but if the defense is concerned that a witness will not show up in court, they can force them to attend by having the court issue a subpoena.
Right to an Attorney
The Sixth Amendment also guarantees the right to have an attorney, but it wasn’t until 1963 that the Supreme Court incorporated this amendment against the states. Incorporation is when the Supreme Court rules that a right in the Bill of Rights – which only applied to the federal government before the 14th Amendment – now applies to state and local governments, too.
On the other hand, all defendants also have the right to represent themselves in court without an attorney. This means that they proceed to the trial while doing the job of their lawyer. However, this is not a recommended course of action. As the old saying goes, “if you are your own lawyer, you have a fool for a client.”