You often hear people say, "Criminals have all the rights." In fact, those rights belong to everyone. They protect the innocent from unjust punishment while ensuring fair treatment of the guilty. People often fail to appreciate the importance of their rights until they are accused of a crime that they did not commit.
However, your rights are useless if you do not understand them. This article will remind you of the important rights that you are entitled to exercise if you are suspected or accused of committing a crime.
The Right to a Lawyer
The most important safeguard against an unjust prosecution or conviction is representation by an attorney. The government has vast resources at its disposal, including an arsenal of prosecutors and law enforcement agents. A lawyer who understands criminal procedure and constitutional protections is essential if the accused has any hope of fighting the government.
A lawyer must be made available to every person charged with a crime who cannot afford to hire counsel. Even before you are charged with a crime, you have the right to hire a lawyer. It is vital to exercise that right as soon as you are contacted by the police. The early involvement of a criminal defense attorney before you are arrested or questioned may keep you from being charged with a crime.
The Right to Remain Silent
Too many people, including innocent defendants, have talked their way into a criminal conviction by speaking to the police. When the police question you, the answers you give may be misinterpreted. If your statement is mistaken in even the most trivial detail, a prosecutor will later make you look like a liar. You can only protect yourself by exercising your right to remain silent.
You never need to answer questions that the police ask you about potential criminal activity. Your only response to a police officer’s question should be: "I will not answer any questions unless I have a lawyer present." Sticking to that answer will prevent your words from being twisted and used against you.
The Right to Be Free from Unreasonable Searches
The police cannot search your home unless you give them consent or unless they have a search warrant. If they come to your door and want to come inside, ask them if they have a warrant. If they do not produce one, you can tell them that they cannot enter.
The police can search your car if they have probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of a crime. Sometimes, they want to search your car in the absence of probable cause. They do not always make clear whether they are asking for permission. If an officer talks about searching your car, you should always respond with, "I do not consent to a search of my car." Unless the officer tells you that they intend to search anyway, you should ask, "Can I leave now?" If the officer says "Yes," then you are free to drive away.
The Right to Be Free from Unreasonable Detentions
The police can arrest you if they have probable cause to believe that you committed a crime. They can detain you briefly to conduct an investigation if they have a reasonable suspicion that you are, or have been, involved in the commission of a crime. If they arrest or detain you in violation of the "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion" standard, any evidence that they obtain as the result of that violation cannot be used against you.
If a police officer places you under arrest or orders you to stop, you should not resist the officer. If the officer has not expressly stated that you have been arrested or detained, you should always ask whether you are free to leave. If the officer acknowledges that you are free to leave, go on about your business. You have no obligation to help the police confirm their suspicions that you have committed a crime.
The Right to Equal Protection of the Law
The criminal justice system is required to treat all persons equally, without regard to race, national origin, religious beliefs or gender. That does not mean that the police must make the same decision in every case—they cannot pull over every speeder, for instance, so they are entitled to exercise discretion in enforcing the law—but the government is never allowed to behave irrationally or to base decisions on discriminatory motives.
The Right to a Fair Trial
Unless a defendant makes a voluntary decision to plead guilty, every person who is accused of a crime has the right to a fair trial. A fundamental part of a fair trial is the protection against conviction unless the government can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That strict standard is meant to minimize the possibility that an innocent person will be convicted. The rights that follow, often known as "trial rights", help assure that criminal trials are fair to the accused.
The Right to a Jury
Thomas Jefferson considered a jury to be the most important protection in the Bill of Rights. Any person accused of a crime, who faces punishment that involves more than a trivial loss of liberty (and, in most jurisdictions, any incarceration at all), has the right to have a jury determine guilt. That means that a jury must decide whether the government proved every fact constituting the crime or that is necessary to the punishment.
Unlike prosecutors, police and even judges, who are all part of the government, jurors are ordinary people. Although they are rarely told that they can do so, jurors can find someone "not guilty" whenever they feel that an acquittal is just, even if guilt is obvious. Jurors therefore bring the community’s sense of justice into the courtroom.
The Right to Testify
Your right to remain silent means that the prosecutor cannot call you as a witness and force you to testify at your trial. But if you choose to tell your side of the story to the jury, the prosecutor cannot prevent you from testifying. Your lawyer can advise you regarding the best strategy, but whether to testify or not is a choice that you have the right to make.
The Right to Compel the Testimony of Witnesses
In addition to your testimony, you can call witnesses to testify who have the knowledge of facts that are helpful to your defense. Even if those witnesses are reluctant to testify, you can use subpoenas to force them to come to court. You are entitled to the testimony of every person who has relevant information about your case.
The Right to Confront Your Accuser
Cross-examination of witnesses exposes lies and reveals weaknesses in their testimony. It is the strongest weapon in the defense lawyer’s arsenal. If a witness testifies against you, that witness must appear in court, must face you, must answer your lawyer’s questions, and must give the jury the opportunity to assess their credibility. A lawyer’s effective cross-examination often shatters the credibility of witnesses and leads to acquittals.