Know Your Rights


Law BooksThere are two fundamental aspects of the criminal justice system, based upon the United States Constitution, that work in your favor: The presumption that the criminal defendant is innocent, and the burden on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition to these two basic presumptions, criminal defendants have other rights as well. Here is an outline of some of these rights.

Your Right to Remain Silent: The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and a similar provision in the New Mexico Constitution, provides that a defendant cannot "be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." In short, you cannot be forced to speak. If you choose to remain silent, the prosecutor cannot call you as a witness, nor can a judge or defense attorney force you to testify. In addition, no adverse inference may be drawn from your refusal to answer questions.

Your Right to Confront Witnesses: The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives criminal defendants the right to "be confronted by the witnesses against" them. The "Confrontation Clause" gives you or your attorney the right to cross-examine witnesses -- that is, the right to require the witnesses to come to court and subject themselves to questioning by the defense. In 2004, in the landmark case of Crawford v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court breathed new life into this provision and affirmed that the Confrontation Clause is vitally important in the criminal justice system.

Your Right to a Public Trial: The Sixth Amendment also guarantees public trials in criminal cases. This means that the Government must prove its case openly and in full view of the public, and that witnesses testify in front of you as well as the general public. Additionally, the presence in courtrooms of your family and friends, ordinary citizens, and the press can help ensure that the government observes important rights associated with trials.

There are limited situations where the court will close itself or portions of its proceedings to the public. For example, judges can bar the public from attending cases involving children defendants, or where adults have been charged with crimes against children. It is typical that witnesses who have not testified will be barred from the courtroom until they have testified, to protect against improper coaching.

Your Right to a Jury Trial: One of the most fundamental rights in the criminal justice system is the right to be tried by a jury. In New Mexico, this typically means that a jury of 12 persons (or 6 persons, if in the Magistrate of Metropolitan Courts) will listen to the evidence and decide on guilt or innocence. The jury's decision must be unanimous, and if one of the jurors is not in agreement, then the jury is "hung" and the defendant will go free unless the prosecutor decides to retry the case.

A jury is selected from one's "peers", which means that members of the community are randomly selected to serve on the Court's jury panel. Through a lengthy process known as "voir dire", the panel is questioned by the Court and by the lawyers for both the defense and prosecution, to screen out any biased jurors in order to arrive at an impartial panel of 12 persons. These individuals ultimately are the arbiters of the case and decide whether the prosecution has met its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, so the importance of the process of voir dire cannot be overstated.

Your Right to Be Represented by an Attorney: The Sixth Amendment also provides that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to have the assistance of counsel for his defense." Individuals that cannot afford to hire an attorney will have an attorney appointed to represent them at government expense, but only if the defendants face jail time. In New Mexico, judges now routinely appoint attorneys for indigent defendants in nearly all cases in which a jail sentence is a possibility.

Your Right to Adequate Representation: The United States Supreme Court has ruled that both indigent defendants who are represented by appointed counsel and defendants who hire their own attorneys are entitled to "adequate representation". On occasion, criminal convictions are overturned because it is determined that the trial lawyer failed to perform basic services, and made egregious errors, that compromised the defendant's constitutional rights. While rare, these reversals demonstrate that a trial attorney must be effective and competent.

Your Right to a Speedy Trial: The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution also guarantees criminal defendants a right to a "speedy trial." However, it does not specify exact time limits. Thus, judges often have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether your right to a speedy trial has been so delayed that the case should be dismissed. In making this decision, judges examine the length of the delay, the reason for the delay and whether the delay has prejudiced the defendant's position.

In New Mexico, the general rule is that "simple" felony cases must be tried within nine months from arraignment, cases of "intermediate" difficulty must proceed to trial within twelve months, and complex cases must be tried within fifteen months from arraignment. The determination of whether a case is "simple", "intermediate" or "complex" is generally made by the trial judge.

Your Right Not to Be Placed in Double Jeopardy: The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that "nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." This provision, known as the Double Jeopardy clause, guarantees that criminal defendants will not be prosecuted more than once for the same offense.

However, one important exception to the rule against double jeopardy is that criminal defendants can be charged by different jurisdictions for the same conduct. For example, a defendant may face charges in both federal and state court for the same act if some aspects of that conduct violated federal laws while other elements ran afoul of the laws of the state.

Furthermore, the double jeopardy clause does not prevent individuals from being charged in criminal courts, and also face claims of civil liability in civil courts for the same conduct. As revealed in the infamous "O.J. Simpson case", a criminal defendant can be prosecuted in criminal court (by the government) and also be accused of having committed civil wrongdoing (and face monetary sanctions) in civil court by members of the public for the same act.