What Are a Person’s Rights When They’re Accused of a Crime?
The U.S. Constitution guarantees some very basic rights to any citizen who is accused of a crime. The biggest right of all is the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. In other words, until and unless it can be proven without any doubt that you committed a crime, you will be considered not guilty.
It is important to understand that in case of arrest, the burden of proof is always on the government. They are the ones who have to justify why you are being arrested. The U.S. Constitute guarantees those accused of a crime the privilege of a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a Latin term which means “you have the body.” The writ of habeas corpus is basically a guarantee that you cannot be held for more than a short period of time unless the authorities have conclusive proof that you committed the crime in question. Without such proof, you cannot be formally charged, and you cannot be deemed guilty.
There are also other rights that you should be aware of if you are accused of a crime. These are typically read out to you at the time of your arrest. They include:
the right to remain silent – no one can force you to give any information to the police. This is a right that is provided to you under the Fifth Amendment. As per the Fifth Amendment, “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger.” You are thus under no obligation to give any statements or prove that you are innocent. If you refuse to make a statement and are coerced into speaking, your rights will be violated, and you can take action against that.
the right to an attorney – you have a right to an attorney, and in case you cannot afford one, the system is required to provide you one. You also have the right to have your attorney present at all times during police interrogation and any other official interaction with the authorities.
the right to a fair trial – you are guaranteed a fair trial if and when charged. You also have the right to a speedy trial. If your case is unnecessarily dragged and you are forced to wait for a long time for the trial to begin, your rights may have been violated. Finally, as far as the trial is concerned, you also have the right to a jury trial if you are charged with a serious crime (defined as crimes that carry a penalty of minimum $500 or six months of jail time). This right is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. If you are accused of a crime, your guilt or innocence will be determined by a panel of citizens. This basically protects you from any discrimination or bias from police officers, prosecutors, and judges. You can waive your right to a jury trial, but again, this is your right to do so and not the authorities.
the right to know the charges – nobody can just arrest you without first telling you the charges against you. The only exception to this rule is when the crime is obvious or when the circumstances are such that it is not possible to inform you of the formal charges.
In case the authorities believe that you may have something incriminating or illegal in your possession, they cannot simply barge in and search your belongings. Your rights are protected in this scenario as well, and the authorities can only search your place if they have a search warrant. The search warrant has to state who, where, and what is to be searched before it will be considered legal. Only under very special circumstances can the police search your premises without a warrant.
Another very important right that you should be aware of is related to punishment during imprisonment. If you are found guilty and imprisoned, the Eighth Amendment guarantees that you will not be subject to any cruel and/or unusual punishment. Any punishment that can be classified as inhumane or which would violate your dignity is a violation of your rights. The Eighth Amendment is often quoted during death penalty debates and discussions, but in essence, this amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, excessive fines, and excessive bail.
When you talk about your rights when you are accused of a crime, you need to know that the U.S. Constitution guarantees you protection and nobody can violate these rights. In fact, the first ten amendments to our Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment make it mandatory for all states to abide by all these rights when prosecuting a person who is suspected of a crime. As per the Fourteenth Amendment, every state has to provide due process of law in all actions including criminal laws and to give equal protection to all citizens. Therefore, if you are accused of a crime, your treatment should be fair and just. There should be no preferential treatment and you should not and cannot be sentenced purely on the basis of your race or age. Every step – the charges, the evidence, the bail, the trial, and the punishment – have to be in line with the U.S. Constitution.