3.12. The Sixth Amendment

Sixth Amendment Protections

The Sixth Amendment guarantees several protections to a criminal defendant in court, namely: the right to a speedy trial, the right to a public trial, the right to a jury trial, the right to have his or her trial in the district where the crime took place, the right to be told what charges have been filed, the right to confront witnesses at trial, the right to compel witnesses to testify at trial, and the right to assistance of counsel. This Amendment governs the federal court process, but because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, these rights also apply to defendants in state criminal cases.

At the same time, we must consider that the text of the Sixth Amendment does not include the many limitations that are imposed upon these rights in practice, nor does it specify the meaning of a “speedy” trial. In fact, a “speedy” trial time frame may be different from state to state, and between state and federal court. Following the Speedy Trial Act of 1974, federal prosecutors essentially have 100 days to get to trial following the arrest of an individual on federal charges – 30 days after the arrest to secure an indictment, and then 70 days post-indictment to begin trial. (Interestingly, Congress has also passed legislation imposing a minimum time from arrest to trial – 30 days – so that defendants have adequate time to prepare.) The 100-day window imposed by the Speedy Trial Act, however, does not county delays that are imposed by the defendant (see more conditions by reading upon on Barker v. Wingo, linked below.)

The Speedy Trial Act does not apply to cases filed in state courts. In Pennsylvania, district attorneys have significantly more time to get to trial (but also, many more cases to prosecute). Individuals who are charged with a criminal offense in Pennsylvania must be brought to trial with 365 of their arrest; moreover, if the defendant is held in pre-trial custody, the speedy trial clock is shortened, to only 180 days. Of course, the vast majority of cases in both state and federal court are dealt with through plea bargaining, and thus never get to trial.

Landmark Case: Gideon v. Wainwright

In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for petty larceny in Panama City, Florida, after an unknown witness reporting seeing him leave the Bay Harbor Pool Room early in the morning, carrying a bottle of wine, Coca-Cola, and change. Brought before a judge, Gideon stated that he could not afford a lawyer, but believed that the state was responsible for providing him with an attorney. In fact, Florida only extended indigent defense – a lawyer appointed and paid by the state – for individuals facing capital offenses. After conviction, Gideon appealed his case from prison, citing a violation of his Sixth Amendment rights – and the Supreme Court agreed. The Court’s decision in Gideon officially incorporated the Sixth Amendment to states, extending the right to indigent defense (a public or court-appointed defender) to anyone facing criminal charges that could be punished with six month, or more, incarceration.

Gideon v. Wainwright also has a podcast! Listen here.

Read up on more landmark cases concerning the Sixth Amendment here: Barker v. Wingo; Strunk v. United States


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, and Shanell Sanchez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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