Once charged with a crime, a person becomes a criminal defendant and the state has a duty to prove its case against the suspect. Every criminal defendant has certain rights, whether caught in the act of committing a crime or not, and the U.S. Constitution contains several provisions that govern the administration of criminal proceedings and that come under the general principle of due process.
1. Fair Law Enforcement Investigation
A criminal defendant is entitled to be treated as innocent until proven guilty and, from the outset, the accused should be party to a fair investigatory procedure by law enforcement. In this regard, there are two matters in particular that the defendant should be aware of:
The Miranda Warning
Before the defendant makes any statements, the police must advise the defendant of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. If this Miranda warning is not given, the judge may refuse to let a jury to hear the evidence taken, which can ultimately lead to the case against the accused being dismissed. The defendant must knowingly and willingly waive their rights in order for any statements to be used as evidence. If a defendant chooses to speak, and at any time requests the presence of an attorney, the questioning should cease and their request accommodated in a timely manner.
Search and Seizure
The police are not entitled to make random searches and seizures. Courts will typically suppress evidence gathered following an unreasonable search where the prosecutor seeks to use it against the defendant. Law enforcement must show probable cause for the search and a court may require them to first obtain a search warrant. There are exceptions to the warrant requirement; for example, when searches are made near the border or when the items seized were in plain view.
2. Legal Representation
A good defense lawyer is a necessity for any criminal defendant. Being charged with a crime is a serious matter and, as the defendant’s life could be about to change forever, adequate legal representation is a must. In particular, if charged with a heinous crime such as murder, a defendant should request a private attorney of their choice; or, if the defendant cannot financially afford to select their own attorney, a public defender will be appointed by the court at the government’s expense. It is not recommended that the defendant acts as their own defense counsel.
After an initial arrest, a judge will usually offer the criminal defendant bail. The judge may hear arguments from the prosecution and the defense as to the level of money needed to secure the defendant’s temporary freedom. When the cash is paid, the defendant is allowed to leave on the condition that they return to court on the chosen date. Failure to show up at the opportune time will lead to a warrant for the individual’s arrest. Although it is normal to offer bail, a defendant is not automatically entitled to it. If there is reasonable cause to believe that a defendant will skip town, bail will not be granted. It may also be refused for certain major or horrific crimes.
4. Medical or Psychiatric Treatment
Before standing trial, a criminal defendant should be given the necessary medical treatment if injured, whether during the course of an arrest or otherwise.
If a criminal defendant is not competent to stand trial for reasons of mental illness, the individual may be given the relevant treatment. Even if the defendant is against the idea, medical authorities may force medication upon an incompetent pretrial defendant if the individual is a danger to themselves, or to other inmates or prison staff.
5. A Speedy Trial
Every criminal defendant has a right to a speedy trial guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. In most jurisdictions, prosecutors are generally required to commence a trial within 60 to 120 of filing the indictment. In addition to prompt trials, the defendant also has other rights and entitlements:
- To be tried by an impartial jury of one’s peers. In order to root out bias, both sides are entitled to ask questions of prospective jurors and ask the court to excuse certain jurors.
- To a fair trial. In high-profile trials, judges will seek to keep publicity to a minimum, instruct attorneys to refrain from speaking to the media, and order jurors to refrain from doing research on the defendant.
- To see all evidence that will be presented by the prosecution, which is a necessity in order to prepare an adequate defense.
- To question prosecution witnesses.
- To not testify against oneself. The defendant does not need to take the stand, nor do they need to answer certain questions while on the stand.
For the criminal defendant to be found guilty, the prosecution must show that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a much higher burden than that of a civil trial. If the jury has reasonable doubt, the defendant will be acquitted.
For lesser offences, a guilty defendant may receive probation and/or a fine, or limited incarceration. The defendant may even be required to pay restitution or do community service.
If the defendant is found guilty of a more serious crime, a sentencing trial may be required. The judge will take representations for the prosecution as to the aggravating factors of the crime, while the defense will proffer the mitigating factors.
The convicted person has a right of allocution and may address the judge to explain, apologize or offer remorse/regret for their actions. This may influence a judge to give a more lenient sentence if they believe the entreaties to be genuine; however, it may have no effect at all if the nature of the crime does not deserve judicial mercy.