What is the Sixth Amendment?

What is the Sixth Amendment and how does it apply to my case?  A criminal defense attorney explains:

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution sets forth various procedural rights related to criminal prosecutions.  The amendment was ratified in 1791 as part of the United States Bill of Rights.  The Supreme Court of the United States applies the Sixth Amendment to states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Our defense attorneys certainly believe the protections provided by the Sixth Amendment are crucial to your defense.  Through the Sixth Amendment, you’re guaranteed a speedy trial, a public trial, an impartial trial, assistance of counsel, and the right to confront your accusers.  Criminal defendants are afforded those rights on all cases ranging from low level misdemeanors to serious homicide charges.

At Van Severen Law Office we dedicate 100% of our practice to criminal defense.  If you face criminal charges, certainly contact us immediately.  Our criminal defense attorneys are available around the clock to begin fighting your criminal case.  You can reach us via telephone at (414) 270-0202.

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What does the Sixth Amendment say?

The language of the Sixth Amendment itself is pretty straightforward:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

In this blog post we will break down certain aspects of the Sixth Amendment.  But firstly, let’s talk about the right to a speedy trial.

What is the right to a speedy trial?

The Sixth Amendment promises “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy … trial.”  Speedy is a relative term.  The Supreme Court of the United States provided a four-part balancing test to determine whether the federal government violated the defendant’s speedy trial right.

Barker v. Wingo involved co-defendants charged with murder.   Prosecutors believed the case against Manning was stronger than Barker’s, so they tried Manning’s case first.  Prosecutors hoped that after a conviction from Manning, he’d turn against Barker and encourage a resolution.  Unfortunately for Barker, this resulted in 16 adjournments of his trial.  The murders occurred on July 20, 1958.  Barker’s trial didn’t start until October 9, 1963.  Eventually the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed the case and upheld Barker’s conviction.

Although Barker lost his case, SCOTUS provided us a four-part balancing test to determine whether a speedy trial violation occurred.  On a case-by-case basis, we must determine:

  1. Firstly, what was the length of the delay?  The court never ruled any specific time limit applies.  That being said, they did determine that a delay of a year or more is “presumptively prejudicial.”
  2. Secondly, what was the reason for the delay?  It’s crucial that the government not delay the trial for its own advantage.  Securing absent witnesses or other practical considerations is a proper reason for delay.
  3. Thirdly, in what time and manner did the defendant assert his speedy trial right?  If the defendant agrees with a delay and subsequently challenges it, there isn’t a speedy trial violation.
  4. Finally, what degree of prejudice did the delay cause?

The remedy for a speedy trial right violation is simple: a reversed or dismissed case on speedy trial grounds means the government cannot continue prosecution.  Skunk v. United States, 412 U.S. 434 (1973).

Speedy trial in Wisconsin courts:

Federal law doesn’t specify exact timelines for a speedy trial violation, instead employing the balancing test described above.  But Wisconsin courts are bound by section 971.10 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  That section provides:

  • Misdemeanor actions “shall commence within 60 days from the date of that defendant’s initial appearance in court.
  • Felony actions “shall comment within 90 days from the date trial is demanded…”

Generally Wisconsin courts require the defendant demand his trial happen on a speedy timeline.

What if they violated my right to a speedy trial?

The remedy for a speedy trial violation in Wisconsin is simple.  Accordingly, the defendant is released on a signature bond while his case pends.  Finally, Wisconsin procedural law does not require a dismissal after a speedy trial violation.

This is obviously in stark contrast to federal law.  Again, the remedy in federal courts is for a complete dismissal of the charges against the defendant.

The 6th Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights.
The 6th Amendment provides important constitutional procedural protections to criminal defendants.

The right to a public trial

It’s frequently not an issue, but the defendant has the right to a public trial.  While we don’t encounter this issue as much as that involving speedy trials, it’s certainly just as important.  Without transparency, protecting the constitution is difficult.  Dangerous things happen behind closed doors.  Surely in that situation the government dulls the already fragile constitution protections of criminal defendants.  It’s for those reasons we’re guaranteed a public trial, but for during very specific circumstances.

Accordingly, the right to a public trial is not absolute.  Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966).  Instead, a “substantial probability” test governs the issue.  Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1 (1986).  The government can compel a closed trial when there is “an overriding interest based on findings that closure is essential to preserve higher value and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.”  The defendant can make a similar request, but “first, there is a substantial probability that the defendant’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced by publicity that closure would prevent, and second, reasonable alternatives to closure cannot adequately protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

The Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury

The defendant’s speedy, public trial must be before an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime was committed.  The Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment supplement the right to an impartial jury.  Impartiality is a two-fold requirement:

  1. Firstly, “The selection of a petit jury from a representative cross section of the community is an essential component of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.” Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522, 528 (1975).  To show a violation of the cross-section requirement, the defendant must show (1) the excluded group is a “distinctive” group in the community; (2) the representation in the jury panel is not fair and reasonable in relation to the group’s presence in the community; and (3) the underrepresentation is due to systematic exclusion of the group in the jury-selection process.
  2. Secondly, jurors must be unbiased.  Specifically, jurors must be able to decide the case on the basis of evidence presented.  For example, if a juror was the victim in a sexual assault case, and she cannot give the defendant a fair shot at a sexual assault trial, she must be excluded.

Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel

The Sixth Amendment ensures the defendant has the right to be assistance from counsel in criminal actions.  One certainly important aspect of the right to counsel focuses on indigent defendants.  What if I can’t afford an attorney?

In 1932 the Supreme Court first ruled on the issue.  It held that “in a capital case, where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense because of ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like, it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel for him.”  Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932).  The financial right to counsel was extended to all federal defendants in Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938) and to all state court defendants in Hamilton v. Alabama, 368 U.S. 52 (1961).  Hamilton added that counsel must be provided even in the absence of “ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like.”

If you’re unable to afford an attorney, we suggest reaching out to your local public defender office.

When do courts appoint an attorney?

The right to counsel means “…. at least that a person is entitled tot he help of a lawyer at or after the time that judicial proceedings have initiated against him, whether by formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, information, or arraignment.”   Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387 (1977).

The right to effective assistance of counsel

An attorney is certainly a start.  But what if that attorney is simply a warm body sitting next to you?  Certainly that attorney doesn’t help your situation.

In Strickland v. Washington the Supreme Court of the United States established that effective assistance of counsel requires two things:

  • Firstly, the defense attorney must have provided deficient performance; and
  • Secondly, prejudice resulted.  Said prejudice would not have occurred but for the deficient performance of counsel.

Having the benefit of counsel, or the assistance of counsel, requires an effective attorney.  Without that, the defendant hasn’t benefited from the assistance of counsel.

The Sixth Amendment right to confront your accusers

Defendants in criminal actions have the right to confront their accusers.  In more simple language, this means that the defendant has the right to face in court the people accused him of committing a crime.  This right includes the right to be present at one’s own trial and the right to cross-examine government witnesses.

The Supreme Court enunciated the three fundamental purpose of the Confrontation Clause in Mattox v. United States, 156 U.S. 237 (1895).  Those three purposes are:

  • Firstly, to ensure that witnesses would testify under oath and understand the serious nature of the trial process;
  • Secondly, to allow the accused to cross-examine witnesses who testify against him; and
  • Finally, to allow jurors to assess the credibility of a witness by observing that witness’s behavior.

Hire a Wisconsin criminal defense attorney to defend your case

The Sixth Amendment to the United States constitution is certainly a complex document.  There are important requirements that must be abided by in order to ensure you get a fair jury trial.  Unless that occurs, your trial simply isn’t fair.

Secondly, it’s your defense attorney’s responsibility to bring these issues up.  The court won’t.  The district attorney certainly won’t.  And an attorney who doesn’t understand the Sixth Amendment certainly won’t.  At Van Severen Law Office we dedicate 100%  of our resources to defending criminal cases just like yours.  If you face criminal charges, call us today.  We answer phones 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.

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