While most laws exist to protect victims of crimes, criminal rights laws are in place to ensure that anyone accused of a crime is treated fairly and presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
Your rights if you are arrested
The most important right you have, if you are ever held by the police on suspicion of committing a crime, is your right to remain silent. This right is stated in the well-known Miranda Warning, which is in place to make sure any information you give the police is given voluntarily.
If the police consider you a suspect in a crime and they place you under arrest, they must read you the Miranda Warning before asking you any questions about the alleged crime. But if the police don't want to question you, they are not required to read you your rights.
Be warned, though, that if the police question you without reading you your rights, and you answer the questions, your statements could still be used against you in court.
Your rights in court
If you are accused of committing a crime and your case goes to trial, criminal rights laws continue to protect you. Your right to an attorney is in place from the time of your initial questioning all the way through your trial. You can hire your own attorney if you can afford one, otherwise the court will appoint a public defender to represent you.
In most criminal cases, the accused also has the right to a trial by a jury. While smaller offenses may not warrant it, the majority of cases require a panel of jurors, who will hear the evidence in the case and give a verdict.
A defendant can't be forced to answer any questions that might reflect poorly on him or her during a trial; hence the term "I plead the Fifth." The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees you will never have to take the stand in your own trial, nor make any comments that may incriminate you in any way in regards to an alleged crime.
Your rights if you are convicted
If you are convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail, there are still several rights in place to protect you. The most important of these is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents any cruel or unusual punishment while you are in custody. This usually refers to any condition or situation that is harmful, such as the conditions of the jail where you are held or poor treatment by the jail staff.
If you are put in jail for a crime, you still have the right to appeal the verdict. You also have the right to an attorney for your appeal, and the government will assign one to you if you can't afford it. Please note, however, that the government will only provide an attorney for your first appeal. Any further appeals will require you to hire your own attorney.
- You have the right to remain silent, or refrain from answering any questions about an alleged crime until you have an attorney present.
- You have the right to a government-appointed attorney through an arrest, a trial, and a first appeal.
- You have the right to a trial by a jury of your peers.
- You have the right to protect yourself from self-incrimination (i.e., pleading the Fifth).
- You have rights that protect your safety and dignity if you are incarcerated, such as the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right of appeal.