Case Law Interpreting the Sixth Amendment


Once a suspect has been arrested, the rights created by the Sixth Amendment take hold. The Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial arises after a defendant has been arrested, indicted, or otherwise formally accused. Title 18 USCA sections 3161 et seq explain the nature of this right. Prior to the point of formal accusation, the government is under no constitutional or statutory obligation to discover or investigate criminal activity or accuse or prosecute suspected criminals within a particular amount of time. Nor is the Speedy Trial Clause implicated after the government has dropped criminal charges, even if the government refiles those charges at a much later date.

The Supreme Court has declined to draw a bright line separating permissible pre-trial delays from delays that are impermissibly excessive. Instead, the Court has developed a balancing test that weighs the reasons for delay against the prejudice suffered by the defendant in having to endure the delay. A delay of at least one year in bringing a defendant to trial following arrest will create a presumption that the Speedy Trial Clause has been violated. However, defendants whose own actions lengthen the pretrial phase or who fail to assert this right early in a criminal proceeding hurt their chances of prevailing on a speedy trial claim.

The point at which defendants are formally charged also triggers the Sixth Amendment right to be informed of the nature and cause of every accusation against them. Courts have interpreted this provision to have two elements. First, defendants must receive notice of any criminal accusations that the government has formally lodged against them through an indictment, information, or complaint. Second, defendants may not be tried, convicted, or sentenced for a crime that materially varies from the crime set forth in the formal charge. If either element is not satisfied and the defendant is convicted, the court will set aside the verdict and sentence.

Once a defendant has been formally charged by the prosecution in writing, the defendant will be arraigned before a court. At the arraignment the court generally reads the written charges to the defendant and attempts to determine if the defendant understands the charges or needs further explanation. Defendants are also provided with the opportunity to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty at the arraignment.

The arraignment is important for Sixth Amendment purposes because it gives rise to defendants’ right to counsel, after which defendants are entitled to have counsel present at every “critical stage” of the proceedings. A critical stage is every stage of a criminal proceeding at which the advice of counsel is necessary to ensure defendants’ right to a fair trial or every stage at which the absence of counsel might impair the preparation or presentation of a defense. Critical stages include important pre-trial hearings, such as a hearing upon a motion to suppress evidence, jury selection, trial, and sentencing. Non-critical stages include pre-trial procurement of defendants’ fingerprints, blood, DNA, clothing, hair, and handwriting or voice samples. Denial of counsel to a defendant during a critical stage is considered tantamount to an unfair trial warranting the reversal of a conviction.

Defendants are not required to be represented by counsel but may instead choose to represent themselves throughout the course of a criminal prosecution, which is called appearing pro se. However, the waiver of the right to counsel must be done in a knowing and intelligent fashion by a defendant who is aware of the advantages to being represented by counsel. Before accepting a defendant’s waiver of counsel, courts will normally explain many of these advantages to the defendant. For example, attorneys can advise their clients whether it is in their self-interest to make any statements to the police. Attorneys can also determine the propriety of bringing any pre-trial motions, including motions to dismiss the case, compel the production of exculpatory evidence, limit testimony of adverse witnesses, and suppress evidence seized in violation of the Constitution. Under case law interpreting the Fourth Amendment, not only is unconstitutionally obtained evidence rendered inadmissible at trial under the exclusionary rule, but any evidence derived from the constitutional violation is also subject to suppression via the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine. Pro se defendants are not likely to understand these nuances of criminal procedure.

Attorneys can also influence the amount of bail that is set by a court following arrest. The Eighth Amendment prohibits courts from setting bail in an excessive amount. Criminal defense attorneys are accustomed to making arguments in favor of setting bail at a level proportionate to the severity of the crime so that gainfully employed defendants accused of less serious offenses can continue earning a living while awaiting trial. In certain instances when defendants have strong ties to a community, attorneys can convince courts to waive bail and release the defendants on their own recognizance, which means that defendants will not be incarcerated prior to trial but are obligated to appear for scheduled court appointments in a timely fashion or risk losing this privilege.

Once the trial begins, the Sixth Amendment guarantees that the defendant be tried in a court open to the public before an impartial jury. The right to a jury trial only applies to charges for which the defendant will be incarcerated upon conviction. If a defendant is tried by the court without a jury, the Sixth Amendment precludes imprisonment as a punishment. The right to a public trial is personal to the defendant and may not be asserted by either the media or the public in general. However, both the media and members of the public have a qualified First Amendment right to attend criminal proceedings.

The right to an impartial jury entitles the defendant to a jury pool that represents a fair cross section of the community. From the pool a panel of jurors is chosen to hear the case through a process called voir dire. During voir dire the presiding judge, the prosecution, and attorneys for the defense are allowed to ask members of the jury pool a variety of questions intended to reveal biases, prejudices, or other influences that might affect their impartiality.

Jurors may be excluded from service for a specific reason, called a challenge for cause, or for strategic purposes, called a peremptory strike. Attorneys for both sides may exercise an infinite number of challenges for cause, while all jurisdictions limit the number of peremptory strikes. For example, in New York state courts both the prosecution and defense receive three peremptory strikes plus one extra for each alternate juror (see NY CPLR ยค4109). The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment also limits attorneys’ use of peremptory strikes, making it unlawful to exclude jurors on account of their race (see Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 90 L.Ed.2d 69, 106 S.Ct. 1712 [1986]). The jurors who are ultimately impaneled for trial need not represent a cross section of the community as long as they maintain their impartiality throughout the proceedings. The presence of even one biased juror impaneled to hear the case is not permitted under the Sixth Amendment.

The constitutional parameters governing the size of a jury in criminal cases are not established by the Sixth Amendment but by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court has ruled that in capital cases (i.e., cases in which the death penalty may be imposed) a defendant’s right to a fair trial requires that the jury be comprised of twelve members who must unanimously agree on the issue of guilt before the defendant may be convicted and sentenced to death. For non-capital cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution permits a verdict to be rendered by a majority vote of as few as nine jurors when the panel consists of twelve. The Court has also said that the Constitution permits trial by as few as six jurors in non-capital cases but that if a six-person jury is impaneled to decide a criminal case, all six must agree on the defendant’s guilt before a conviction can be returned.

After the jury has been selected, the prosecution presents its case in chief. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to confront witnesses who testify against them. In all but exceptional circumstances, the type of confrontation contemplated by the Sixth Amendment is face-to-face confrontation, allowing defendants to hear evidence against them, consult with their attorneys, and participate in cross-examination to test the credibility and reliability of the victim or other prosecution witnesses.

Once the prosecution finishes presenting its case in chief, the defendant must be allowed the opportunity to put on a defense. The Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to subpoena witnesses and compel the production of evidence favorable to their case. The Sixth Amendment guarantees this right even if an indigent defendant cannot afford to pay the expenses that accompany the use of judicial resources to subpoena evidence. Defendants are under no obligation to testify themselves, as the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent applies during trial just as fully as it does during pre-trial questioning by the police. In fact, the defense need not call any witnesses or offer any evidence at all. The prosecutor has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and the defendant may decide that the prosecution’s case is sufficiently weak that the jury will vote to acquit without hearing from the defense.

If the court hears from the defense, each side is then allowed to present rebuttal testimony after which both sides will normally rest. The Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury prohibits jury members from deliberating before all of the evidence has been submitted, the attorneys have made their closing arguments, and the judge has read the instructions. Once deliberations begin, jurors may ask the court for clarification of the instructions and for portions of the testimony transcribed for their review. If the jurors cannot reach a verdict after discussing the evidence amongst themselves, the judge will try to determine if they are hopelessly deadlocked. However, the judge cannot force a jury to reach a verdict, but the judge may encourage the jurors to make every reasonable effort to resolve their differences. If the jurors remain deadlocked for a reasonable period of time after meeting with the judge, the court will declare a mistrial and dismiss the panel from further service.

If the jurors return a verdict of not guilty, the court will enter a judgment of acquittal, and the defendant is free to leave the courthouse without limitation or condition. If the jurors return a verdict of guilty, the case will proceed to sentencing. For lesser offenses, such as simple or petty misdemeanors, sentencing may immediately follow the verdict. For all other offenses, sentencing is usually conducted by the court in a separate hearing held several days or weeks after the verdict. Both the prosecution and defense are permitted to make arguments as to the appropriate sentence, and courts are generally given wide latitude in crafting individualized punishments within the statutory guidelines. Sometimes this discretion is curtailed by guidelines that require mandatory minimum sentences. Punishments may include any combination of community service, forfeiture of property, fines, probation, or incarceration. In 38 states and in federal court, defendants may be sentenced to death for first-degree murder, felony murder, and other similarly serious crimes.