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Bill of Rights: Sixth

Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Rights Granted By the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a cluster of rights designed to make criminal prosecutions more accurate, fair, and legitimate. But the institutions of American criminal justice have changed markedly over the past several centuries, forcing courts to consider how old rights apply to new institutions and procedures.

At the time of the Founding, there were local sheriffs but no professionalized police forces; instead, ordinary men took turns serving as constables or night watchmen. Criminal cases were almost always brought by victims, not public prosecutors. At trial, neither side typically had a lawyer, so both victims and defendants represented themselves. Trials were like shouting matches, in which victims and defendants argued and brought other live witnesses to tell their stories. They lasted minutes or hours, not days.                         

Juries of twelve ordinary men were central players in this system. They were local citizens who often knew the victim, defendant, and other people and places involved. They also knew which charges subjected defendants to the death penalty (as many felonies did), and which did not. Jurors looked witnesses in the eye and debated both whether a defendant was factually guilty and whether he deserved mercy. They checked the government’s power to punish and applied the conscience of the community in the public eye, assuring everyone that justice had been done swiftly, impartially, and fairly.

The Framers of the Sixth Amendment sought to strengthen this vigorous adversarial process. Continental Europe had long used an inquisitorial system, in which magistrates investigate crimes and judges take leading roles in framing the issues, digging up evidence, and questioning witnesses. The Anglo-American system that the Sixth Amendment codified, by contrast, leaves it to each side to conduct its own investigation, present its own evidence, and argue one side of the story in open court. Continue reading from Constitution Center

Conditions for Right to Counsel

The 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” The 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from “depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or “deny[ing] to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws", was ratified 77 years later, in 1868.

Sixty-four years after that, in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932), the Supreme Court of the United States held for the first time that the Due Process of Clause of the 14th Amendment required that counsel be provided to indigent defendants—at least in a state court capital case. And it was 31 years after that, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), that the Supreme Court held that the right to counsel was a “fundamental right."

But over the next several decades, the Supreme Court set out a number of limits on the extent of the 6th Amendment right to counsel—which thus functioned as limits on when states were required to provide counsel to indigent parties. The right to appointed counsel applies in all felony proceedings regardless of punishment imposed, but only in misdemeanor proceedings where the defendant is actually sentenced to imprisonment. See Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367, 373-74 (1979); Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738, 743 n.9 (1994). There is no right to appointed counsel in misdemeanor proceedings not resulting in a sentence of incarceration, even if the conviction is subsequently used to enhance sentencing for another crime, or if the revocation of probation may result in actual imprisonment. Continue reading from Concord Law School

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