Do I have a right to a court-appointed attorney?
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranties the right to have a lawyer for criminal prosecutions. This right is so critical that in 1963, in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright the Supreme Court established that criminal defendants unable to afford a lawyer have a right to free legal representation when they face possible imprisonment from conviction. This article explains some of the specific guarantees and protections provided by this law as well as some of its limitations. First, let’s cover what is protected under the Sixth Amendment and when.
In criminal proceedings where the defendant is currently imprisoned or faces imprisonment of at least one year, the accused has a right of access to a criminal defense lawyer during the following phases:
What about civil proceedings?
The Sixth Amendment does not apply to federal civil proceedings, including deportation proceedings. There are, however, some exceptions that the courts have recognized and they fall into the following categories:
- Delinquency hearings for juveniles
- Cases of abuse or neglect
- Civil forfeiture of residence
- Hearings for active military
- Some termination of parental rights or child custody hearings
- Some civil contempt cases
It is important to note that some states often expand these federal rights either through state constitutions, or through state court rulings. This means that you have the protections of the U.S. Constitution and you may have additional protections offered by your state constitution.
Some things to know
The defendant is responsible for demanding his right to a lawyer. This means that while law enforcement does have to inform you of your right to a lawyer, they do not have to ask if you want one and they do not have to clearly explain or simplify questions for you.
Why you should exercise this right
It’s difficult to put a price on your freedom. If you face imprisonment, you owe it to yourself to defend your freedom by retaining an effective attorney. And the sooner you do, the better your chances are of shaping a favorable case for trial. A lawyer, even a court-appointed one, has the obligation to ensure that your constitutional rights are not violated.
Updated: December 1969