The 6th Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the American Bill of Rights, which is the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights became law on December 15, 1791. The 6th Amendment focuses completely on the rights of a person accused of committing a crime by the government.
Of the 26 rights mentioned in the first eight amendments, 15 of them have something to do with the criminal court procedure. This was obviously something very important to the Founding Fathers. They were very familiar with a long list of government abuses from English history in which people were accused of things and punished unfairly. The English monarchy had punished, tortured and killed people for everything from disagreeing with the king to choosing a different religious path from the government's approved denomination.
The 6th Amendment contains 7 specific protections for people accused of crimes. The 6th Amendment reads like this:
"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."
The seven rights listed in the 6th Amendment include:
You can read a short description of each of these 6th Amendment clauses below. Then there is a link to a page with more detailed information about each one.
The Speedy Trial Clause guarantees that you must be tried quickly if you are charged with a crime. Why is this so important that the Founding Fathers would add it to the Bill of Rights?
Well, if you weren't guaranteed a speedy trial, you could sit in jail for months or years without being tried! That was a frequent occurrence in English history. The Founding Fathers wanted to protect themselves and you from this in the new government they were creating. The 6th Amendment's Speedy Trial Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy... trial."
The Speedy Trial Clause serves three main purposes - to prevent lengthy incarcerations before guilt has been determined, to minimize anxiety and concern for the accused who may eventually be declared innocent and to reduce the possibility that long delays could impair the accused's ability to defend himself due to fading memories, the death of witnesses, etc.
The Federal Speedy Trial Act of 1974 says that charges must be filed within 30 days of an arrest for a federal crime and a trial must commence within 70 days. If a Speedy Trial violation occurs, new trials are not allowed. Instead, the conviction is thrown out without the possibility of a retrial.
For this reason, courts very rarely find Speedy Trial violations. They are not to eager to see someone go free who is guilty. Even delays up to to several years are often not considered to be violations of the Speedy Trial Clause by the courts.
The Public Trial Clause guarantees that if you are ever charged with a crime, you must be tried in a public trial. Don't like the sound of that? It might be embarrassing! You wouldn't like the results though if trials were held in secret. The judge or other officials could file false charges against you, not allow you to defend yourself or throw you in prison with no evidence! No one would ever know, because the trial wasn't conducted in public. Holding trials in public holds corrupt officials at bay and prevents them from harming people unjustly.
Throughout European and English history, many people were tortured, executed or unjustly imprisoned for things they didn't do in secret trials. That's why the Founding Fathers were determined to protect people from being tried in secret. The Public Trial Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a... public trial"
Public trials also serve several other purposes. They tend to cause witnesses to come forward who may know something about the crime because they hear of the public proceedings. They also tend to pressure people to tell the truth because anyone who knows they are lying might hear of the public proceedings and come forward and tell the truth.
Public trials also increase the public's confidence in the judicial and legal system because the public can see exactly what is going on. If they like the system and procedures they will be confident in its results. If they do not like what they see, they will elect new officials to change the proceedings. Public trials also satisfy the public's desire for justice when it sees a criminal receive a just punishment.
The Right to Trial by Jury Clause
protects you from persecution by corrupt judges, who might sentence you
unfairly if they alone had the power to convict you. The Founding
Fathers were aware of the history in England and Europe of people being
sentenced to lengthy prison terms, tortured or even killed in secret
trials. If you were accused in this situation, you often had no chance
to defend yourself and the charges were often trumped up to eliminate
political and religious dissent.il
By requiring a jury to be involved in a trial, serious and sometimes fatal decisions are taken out of the hands of one or a few judges, and are put into the hands of a group of average citizens who look over the evidence. This greatly reduces the possibility of corruption in the trial.
Trial by jury is mentioned 4 times in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, so it was very important to the Founding Fathers. The Right to Trial by Jury was considered to be "the palladium of English liberty" by Sir William Blackstone, a British legal scholar who was widely followed by America's Founders.
The 6th Amendment Right to Trial by Jury Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a... 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."
For many years, all juries in America had twelve people, which is how juries were conducted during the time the Constitution was written. Eventually, though, the Supreme Court reduced the allowable size of juries in state trials down to a minimum of six. Federal trials must still have twelve jurors. The Court also removed the requirement that juries be unanimous in their decisions in state courts. Instead, 10-2 or 9-3 verdicts are now accepted. Federal court juries, however, must be unanimous.
Find out more about the Right to Trial by Jury Clause here or you can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment Court Cases dealing with the Right to Trial by Jury Clause here.
The Arraignment Clause requires that if you are ever charged with a crime, you must be fully informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against you. The Arraignment Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation."
An "arraignment" means to have the charges presented to you. Arraignments must include very specific charges, including dates, times, exactly what allegedly happened and must reference the exact written law that was violated.
This was a very important right to the Founding Fathers, many of whose ancestors had fled to America to avoid religious persecution. In England, it was common for people who did not agree with the Church of England to be pulled into court and sentenced and never even know what the charges were. Without this protection, courts could throw people in prison unjustly, make up false charges or punish people with whom they disagreed. People were also tried without being informed of the charges against them for their political positions if they were in opposition to the King.
In order to prevent these types of abuses by the new government of the United States, the Founders included the Arraignment Clause in the Bill of Rights.
The Arraignment Clause provides an important safeguard to all Americans. It assures that crimes have actually been committed before a conviction is made by spelling out clearly what the violation was. Without this safeguard, people could easily be convicted by corrupt officials who didn't approve of the accused for whatever reason. Vague charges could be filed, or even worse, false charges that are not clear to the accused. This clause provides a bulwark to the innocent from being charged falsely.
The Confrontation Clause guarantees one of the key elements in any trial, the right to confront the witnesses who are accusing you. This clause requires that your accusers must appear in your presence and make the accusations face to face. The clause also gives you the right to cross-examine them. The Confrontation Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to be confronted with the witnesses against him."
The Founding Fathers were very familiar with English history, in which statements made by people outside of the court were often allowed as evidence. This provided the accused with a huge disadvantage because the jury could not see the person to judge their demeanor and the accused could not ask them questions to examine their truthfulness.
If you were not allowed to cross-examine your accuser, the prosecution could make up all kinds of false accusations against you and the jury would never know whether or not he was telling the truth. By having the witnesses testify in person, the judge and jury are able to see the person up close. They can observe their behavior and demeanor, and can make a better judgment about the person's credibility.
English history had many occurrences of people being tried in court and never seeing their accusers. Sir Walter Raleigh, an early American explorer, was even put to death based on such an accusation. The Founding Fathers believed this was inherently unfair and put a stop to it in America by adding the 6th Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
There are certain circumstances in which a court will allow testimony made outside a court to be allowed in court proceedings. Depositions are sometimes held to gather witness statements. In a deposition, the defendant is not allowed to see or question the witness, but the defendant's lawyer is allowed. This effectively provides a cross examination of the witness. Such statements are often allowed in court.
In addition, statements made by a witness who is no longer available, such as someone who died or moved away, are often allowed if the prosecutor used every available means to get the witness to the trial.
The 6th Amendment's Compulsory Process Clause guarantees two primary things. First of all that you will be able to call witnesses in your behalf if you are ever charged with a crime. Second, that the court will subpoena the witnesses if they refuse to testify. This protection is necessary to guard against unfair or unjust accusations in court. Without the ability to call witnesses in one's behalf, false accusations might seem truthful and a false conviction could occur.
The Compulsory Process Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor."
This right was very important to the Founding Fathers who wrote the United States Constitution. They were familiar with English and colonial laws that forbade people from calling witnesses in cases of treason or felony. It was also the English and colonial practice not to allow people to testify in their own behalf! Their reasoning was that testimony from the accused person was inherently unreliable because of their personal interest in the outcome.
The Founders saw it differently. By adopting the Compulsory Process Clause, the Founders were trying to protect people from the government using its great power and resources to convict and punish people unfairly. They saw the right to defend oneself with witnesses as a key to this protection.
In modern day courts, there are a few examples when witnesses cannot be compelled to testify, such as when a witness pleads the 5th Amendment to avoid self-incrimination, or when one side or the other fails to inform the other side that it wants to present a witness without giving them enough time to prepare a defense.
Courts must do everything in their power to get witnesses to testify, including locating witnesses who cannot be found and getting them to the trial, no matter the expense or effort required. If the state does not make every effort to get the witnesses to the trial, the Compulsory Process Clause has been violated.
You can read more about the Compulsory Process Clause hereor you can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment Court Cases dealing with the Compulsory Process Clause here.
The Right to Counsel Clause guarantees that you can have a lawyer to assist you if you are charged with a crime. The modern courts have even determined that this clause gives you the right to have a court appointed attorney, paid for at the public's expense, if you cannot afford to hire your own. The Right to Counsel Clause reads like this:
"In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right... to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."
Many people believe the Right to Counsel is the most important right protected by the 6th Amendment. The right to defend oneself if accused of a crime is a bedrock of the American judicial system.
Since legal matters are often confusing to the average person, the Supreme Court has determined that defendants must be allowed to have an experienced attorney defend them, someone who understands the legal system. If the person cannot afford to hire an attorney on their own, they will be given one by the court of jurisdiction.
The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for the Right to Counsel Clause to mean that the public must provide an attorney for defendants in criminal cases. Instead, they meant to guarantee the right to hire a private attorney if one was desired. Indeed, at the time of the founding, the most common practice was for people to defend themselves in court.
It was not until 1932, in a Supreme Court case called Powell vs. Alabama, that a right to counsel was determined to exist in the 6th Amendment. Over several years and a series of cases, this right became more and more established in American law until it today, when it is considered to a universal right in criminal proceedings.
You can find out how this change occurred and more about the Right to Counsel Clause here or you can read about several interesting and significant Sixth Amendment Court Cases dealing with the Right to Counsel Clause here.
Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Learn about the 1st Amendment here.
Learn about the 2nd Amendment here.
Learn about the 3rd Amendment here.
Learn about the 4th Amendment here.
Learn about the 5th Amendment here.
Learn about the 6th Amendment here.
Learn about the 7th Amendment here.
Learn about the 8th Amendment here.
Learn about the 9th Amendment here.
Learn about the 10th Amendment here.
Learn more about the Bill of Rights with the following articles:
Last updated 8/7/12