Your Basic Rights

Here are some of the most important rights that everyone charged with a crime should know about:

  • Presumption of innocence. This means that any criminal proceeding starts with the assumption that you are not guilty. In other words, you don’t have to prove you didn’t do it; the government must prove its case against you.
  • Right to counsel. No one has to face a prosecutor alone, and no one should face a prosecutor alone. You have the right to have an attorney represent you at every stage of a criminal proceeding.
  • Right to a jury trial. The fate of one charged with a crime need not be left to a hard-nosed judge. You have a right to be tried by a jury of ordinary people selected from the general public.
  • Right to a public trial. No secret trials in this country! Your friends and relatives can show up in court to support you.
  • Right to a speedy trial. Even those charged with serious crimes and denied bail cannot be left in jail indefinitely. Criminal defendants have a right to a speedy trial.
  • Right to face only lawful, relevant evidence. Evidence obtained through an illegal search of your house or car cannot be used against you. Hearsay evidence – what somebody who is not a witness said to someone else – is not admissible. Lying or exaggerating witnesses can be exposed and their testimony discredited through cross-examination.
  • Right to confront witnesses. Except in rare cases involving crimes against young children, criminal defendants have the right to confront all witnesses in court, to look them in the eye as they testify for the prosecution.
  • Right to remain silent. No criminal defendant can be forced to testify. And the prosecutor cannot point out to the jury that you haven’t testified.
  • Right to be tried only once (double jeopardy). After a successful defense – no conviction or a light sentence – it’s over. The government cannot prosecute a person twice on the same charges, even if new evidence is discovered. (One exception: separate state and federal trials may be based on the same or similar charges.)
  • Proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the standard of proof – the amount of evidence the prosecution has to produce against a criminal defendant – is much higher in a criminal case than a civil case. Even if the evidence throws suspicion on the defendant, if the jury at the end of the trial still has a reasonable doubt about guilt, it must return a “Not guilty” verdict.

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