When you’ve been charged with a criminal offense, it’s important that you seek the counsel of a criminal defense attorney, but you also need to know your rights. Your lawyer may be able to help you understand some of these rights, but you can also help yourself by familiarizing yourself with certain basic concepts.
- Right against self-incrimination. You’ve heard of witnesses “pleading the Fifth,” when testifying in front of a judge, jury, or Congress. “Pleading the Fifth” means you don’t have to answer certain questions which, when answered honestly, would tend to incriminate yourself. There are other protections sanctioned under the Fifth Amendment as well, though. One of these is the right not to testify in your own defense if you choose not to. Most defense attorneys will not recommend that defendants testify in court. This is in part because your Fifth Amendment rights are considered waived once you, as a defendant, take the stand.
- Right to counsel. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to legal counsel. This means you have the right to be represented by a practicing attorney during trial. It also means that if you cannot afford to retain a lawyer, the government will appoint one to handle the case, at no cost to you. Even before the trial, however, you may have the right to an attorney. Typically from the point of arrest you can choose to consult a lawyer at any time. This right continues through the trial and the first appeal after a conviction.
- Right to a speedy trial by jury. The Sixth Amendment goes on to guarantee defendants the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of peers. This means the trial must take place within a reasonable timeframe after the arrest, and that you have a right to a jury trial which you can waive. Many lawyers will recommend waiving your right to a jury trial if they feel the likelihood of conviction is high, and your interests would be better served by entering into a plea agreement or choosing a bench trial instead.
- Protection against “double jeopardy.” This means you cannot be tried twice for the same offense. This means that no matter whether your trial ends in conviction or acquittal, you cannot be tried again for the same crime. You also cannot be given multiple punishments for the same crime.
It’s important to know your rights even before you need to exercise them. Remember that at all times you and you alone have the right to waive your rights. Your defense attorney can help you understand when it’s in your best interests to waive your rights, but no one can force you to do so.