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Understanding Your Right to a Fair Trial

Understanding your right to a fair trial is an important civil liberty. Part of the Bill of Rights, the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution details your rights within the criminal justice system.

Sixth Amendment rights are designed to protect you if you’re accused of crimes. Among the safeguards outlined in the Sixth Amendment include the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to an impartial jury of your peers, and the right to confront witnesses against you in a court of law.

In this blog we’ll discuss:

Right to a fair trial is in the Bill of Rights, shown here with an Eagle and a gavel superimposed over them.
The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial.

What is the Bill of Rights?

The Bill of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution. It was added to the Constitution in 1791 to outline individual rights. Considered a cornerstone of American law, it is widely regarded as one of the most important documents in the history of U.S. democracy.

Many Americans are familiar with the First and Second Amendments, which deal with freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. Others know all about the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

These amendments are more well-known because they get frequent exposure in the media. However, the Bill of Rights as a whole is designed to protect you from abuse of power by the government. They ensure all citizens are treated equally under the law.

What is the Sixth Amendment?

If you’ve ever watched a police procedural on television, chances are, you’ve heard reference to the right to a fair trial. You can find this guarantee in the Bill of Rights under the Sixth Amendment. An essential part of protecting the rights of all Americans, the Sixth Amendment is a critical part of the criminal justice process.

Under it, Americans are promised:

  • The right to a fair and speedy trial.
  • The right to an impartial jury of their peers.
  • The right to be informed of the charges against them.
  • The right to confront witnesses against them in court.
  • The right to an attorney.
A man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit is escorted by an officer of the court as part of a fair trial.
The right to a fair trial is part of your civil liberties under the Sixth Amendment.

How does the Sixth Amendment protect your rights?

American citizens can find several key protections for navigating the criminal justice system within the Sixth Amendment. Receiving a fair and just trial is among them.  There are 5 rights outlined in this amendment.

Let’s break down the 5 basic rights under the Sixth Amendment to learn how they protect you.

  1. You have the right to a speedy and public trial
    Criminal cases must be heard in a court of law in a timely manner. On average, it can take 256 days for a felony case and 193 days for a misdemeanor charge for a criminal case to come before the court.

    Attorneys for the accused can request bail for their clients. If granted, posting bail allows secures your release from jail while awaiting your court date. In some cases—like first-degree murder—you may be denied bail. If you’re a flight risk, a judge also can refuse to grant bail. In these instances, you’ll remain incarcerated until your trial.

  2. You have the right to an impartial jury
    Any jury trials for criminal proceedings must consist of peers without bias against the accused. Additionally, jurors must represent a cross-section of the community, which helps protect against partiality.

    New Mexico courts randomly select names from voter registration lists to serve as potential jurors for criminal cases. Attorneys for the prosecution and defense—plus the presiding judge—ask potential jurors questions to determine their suitability to serve.

  3. You have the right to be informed of the charges against you
    One of the most important rights under the Sixth Amendment is knowing the charges against you. Without that information, you can’t properly prepare or defend yourself in a court of law.

    In New Mexico, suspects are formally charged during an arraignment, during which time all charges against them are presented. Before that, you receive an official complaint—usually within 72 hours of an arrest—detailing pending charges and your rights.

  4. You have the right to confront witnesses in a court of law
    During criminal proceedings, the prosecution may present witnesses to corroborate the charges against you. They may testify before the court about something they personally witnessed. Sometimes the witnesses are victims of a crime who have agreed to testify against the accused.

    The Sixth Amendment gives your criminal defense attorney the right to cross-examine witnesses against you in court. Your attorney can go so far as to challenge a witness’s testimony by providing evidence that contradicts what they’re claiming.

  5. You have the right to representation from an attorney
    If you’re arrested and charged with a crime, the Sixth Amendment ensures you have an attorney to represent you. Including this basic right within the amendment guarantees you can properly defend yourself against charges.

    In the U.S., if you can’t afford an attorney, one is appointed to you through the courts. These lawyers are called public defenders.
Scales of justice balanced by a blindfolded lady to demonstrate the right to a fair trial.
The scales of justice are meant to move swiftly and fairly in the U.S. The Sixth Amendment helps protect these rights to a fair trial.

What should you do if your Sixth Amendment rights are violated?

If you believe your Sixth Amendment rights were violated, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and hold the government accountable.

The most important thing you can do is contact a civil rights attorney. Criminal defense attorneys can help you defend yourself against charges, but they generally aren’t equipped to handle civil rights violation cases.

Once you have a civil rights attorney, they may recommend the following steps:

  • Appeal your criminal case to a higher court and use evidence of a violation of your rights in the lower courts.
  • File a complaint with the court or state bar association against a legal professional if you believe they violated your Sixth Amendment rights.
  • Report police misconduct if you believe your rights were violated during your arrest or other handling by the police. You can report misconduct to the internal affairs division of the police department handling your case, or take it to a state or federal law enforcement agency.

Protect your civil liberties

It’s important to act quickly if you think your Sixth Amendment rights were violated. In New Mexico, victims of civil rights violations have 3 years to file before the statute of limitations runs out.

Cameron & Russell have attorneys on staff experienced in both criminal defense and civil rights. Schedule a free case evaluation today to discover how we can help pursue your civil rights case.

February 9, 2023

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