Know your rights.
As we've already seen, in the United States we have two systems of courts. Similarly, we have two systems of criminal justice as well. At the federal level, you may be charged with a crime when you do something prohibited by a federal statute, and your trial on federal charges will be conducted in a federal district court. If you are found guilty and sentenced to serve a prison sentence, that sentence will be served in a federal prison.
If you commit a crime prohibited by state law, your trial will be conducted in a state criminal court, and any prison sentence imposed will be served in a state institution. In either case, however, your rights when accused of a crime are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. And if you are charged with a crime under state law and the state's constitution grants criminal defendants greater rights than those contained in the federal Constitution, those safeguards will apply as well.
The most essential protections granted to individuals suspected of or accused of a crime are those contained in the Bill of Rights. And of these, the most important are those guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.
As it has been interpreted by the U.S Supreme Court, the Fifth Amendment requires the government to take certain steps in order to ensure that you are not deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." If you are arrested, the police must inform you of your right to remain silent and to have the assistance of a lawyer, as well as the right to a court-appointed lawyer if you cannot afford to hire one on your own. In addition, you must be warned that anything you say may be used against you in court. This is the famous Miranda warning, named for the man whose appeal led to the Supreme Court's decision that the failure of the police to provide notice of these rights was unconstitutional.
It's not enough to tell you what your rights are, however. The police must give you the opportunity to exercise those rights, by letting you call a family member, friend, or an attorney. Holding an arrested suspect in isolation and refusing to let a lawyer or family member's visit is also a violation of the suspect's constitutional rights. And once you indicate that you want to speak to a lawyer, the police must halt all questioning unless a lawyer is present. However, if you change your mind and initiate further conversations with the police, any statements you make may be used by the government in prosecuting you.
You have a right to know the nature of the crime you have been charged with, and to appear before a judge within a reasonable period of time in order to enter your plea to the charges. If you are not released from jail on your own recognizance (your written promise to appear for trial) you have the right to have reasonable bail set.
Copyright 1999 ProSe Associates Inc. All rights reserved.
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