Sixth Amendment

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 defense.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affords criminal defendants seven discrete personal liberties: (1) the right to a SPEEDY TRIAL; (2) the right to a public trial; (3) the right to an impartial jury; (4) the right to be informed of pending charges; (5) the right to confront and to cross-examine adverse witnesses; (6) the right to compel favorable witnesses to testify at trial through the subpoena power of the judiciary; and (7) the right to legal counsel. Ratified in 1791, the Sixth Amendment originally applied only to criminal actions brought by the federal government.

Over the past century, all of the protections guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment have been made applicable to the state governments through the doctrine of selective incorporation. Under this doctrine, the Due Process and EQUAL PROTECTION Clauses of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT require each state to recognize certain fundamental liberties that are enumerated in the BILL OF RIGHTS because such liberties are deemed essential to the concepts of freedom and equality. Together with the SUPREMACY CLAUSE of Article VI, the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any state from providing less protection for a right conferred by the Sixth Amendment than is provided under the federal Constitution.

Speedy Trial

The right to a speedy trial traces its roots to twelfth-century England, when the Assize of Clarendon declared that justice must be provided to robbers, murderers, and thieves "speedily enough." The Speedy Trial Clause was designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent defendants from languishing in jail for an indefinite period before trial, to minimize the time in which a defendant's life is disrupted and burdened by the anxiety and scrutiny accompanying public criminal proceedings, and to reduce the chances that a prolonged delay before trial will impair the ability of the accused to prepare a defense. The longer the commencement of a trial is postponed, courts have observed, the more likely it is that witnesses will disappear, that evidence will be lost or destroyed, and that memories will fade.

A person's right to a speedy trial arises only after the government has arrested, indicted, or otherwise formally accused the person of a crime. Before the point of formal accusation, the government is under no Sixth Amendment obligation to discover, investigate, accuse, or prosecute a particular defendant within a certain amount of time. The Speedy Trial Clause is not implicated in post-trial criminal proceedings such as PROBATION and PAROLE hearings. Nor may a person raise a speedy-trial claim after the government has dropped criminal charges, even if the government refiles those charges at a much later date. However, the government must comply with the fairness requirements of the Due Process Clause during each juncture of a criminal proceeding.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to draw a bright line separating permissible pretrial delays from delays that are impermissibly excessive. Instead, the Court has developed a BALANCING test in which length of delay is just one factor to consider when evaluating the merits of a speedy-trial claim. The other three factors that a court must consider are the reason for delay, the severity of prejudice, or injury, suffered by the defendant from delay, and the stage during the criminal proceedings in which the defendant asserted the right to a speedy trial. Defendants who fail to assert this right early in a criminal proceeding, or who acquiesce in the face of protracted pretrial delays, typically lose their speedy-trial claims.

Defendants whose own actions lengthen the pretrial phase normally forfeit their rights under the Speedy Trial Clause as well. For example, defendants who frivolously inundate a court with pretrial motions are treated as having waived their rights to a speedy trial (United States v. Lindsey, 47 F.3d 440 [D.C. Cir. 1995]). In such situations, defendants are not allowed to benefit from their own misconduct. On the

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other hand, delays that are attributable to the government, such as those due to prosecutorial NEGLIGENCE in misplacing a defendant's file, will violate the Speedy Trial Clause (United States v. Shell, 974 F.2d 1035 [9th Cir. 1992]).

A delay of at least one year in bringing a defendant to trial following arrest will trigger a presumption that the Sixth Amendment has been violated, with the level of judicial scrutiny increasing in direct proportion to the length of delay (United States v. Gutierrez, 891 F. Supp. 97 [E.D.N.Y. 1995]). The government may overcome this presumption by offering a "plausible reason" for the delay (United States v. Thomas, 55 F.3d 144 [4th Cir. 1995]). Courts generally will condone longer delays when the prosecution has requested additional time to prepare for a complex or difficult case. When prosecutors have offered only implausible reasons for delay, courts traditionally have dismissed the indictment, overturned the conviction, or vacated the sentence, depending on the remedy requested by the defendant.

Public Trial

The right to a public trial is another ancient liberty that Americans have inherited from Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. During the seventeenth century, when the English Court of Oyer and Terminer attempted to exclude members of the public from a criminal proceeding that the Crown had deemed to be sensitive, defendant John Lilburn successfully argued that immemorial usage and British COMMON LAW entitled him to a trial in open court where spectators are admitted. The Founding Fathers believed that public criminal proceedings would operate as a check against malevolent prosecutions, corrupt or malleable judges, and perjurious witnesses. The public nature of criminal proceedings also aids the fact-finding mission of the judiciary by encouraging citizens to come forward with relevant information, whether inculpatory or exculpatory.

Under the Public Trial Clause, friends and relatives of a defendant must be initially permitted to attend trial. However, the right to a public trial is not absolute, and parents, spouses, and children will be excluded if they disrupt the proceedings (Cosentino v. Kelly, 926 F. Supp. 391 [S.D.N.Y. 1996]). Toddlers and infants, ranging from one month to two years in age, may be summarily excluded from a courtroom consistent with the Sixth Amendment, even if the judge fails to articulate a reason for doing so (United States v. Short, 36 M.J. 802 [A.C.M.R. 1993]). Children in this age group are too young to understand legal proceedings, are easily agitated, and present a substantial risk of hindering a trial with distractions.

The Sixth Amendment right to a public trial is personal to the defendant and may not be asserted by the media or the public in general. However, both the public and media have a qualified FIRST AMENDMENT right to attend criminal proceedings. The First Amendment does not accommodate everyone who wants to attend a particular proceeding. Nor does the First Amendment require courts to televise any given legal proceeding. Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, have never been televised.

Courtrooms are areas of finite space and limited seating in which judges diligently attempt to maintain decorum. In cases that generate tremendous public interest, courts sometimes create lottery systems that randomly assign citizens a seat in the courtroom for each day of trial. A separate lottery may be established for the purpose of determining which members of the media are permitted access to the courtroom on a given day, although local and national newspapers and television stations may be given a permanent courtroom seat. Members of the media and public who are excluded from attending trial on a given day are sometimes provided admission to an audio room where they can listen to the proceedings.

In rare cases, criminal proceedings will be closed to all members of the media and the public. However, a compelling reason must be offered before a court will follow this course. For example, when the First Amendment rights of the media to attend a criminal trial collide with a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial, the defendant's Sixth Amendment right takes precedence, and the legal proceeding may be closed (In re Globe Newspaper, 729 F.2d 47 [1st Cir. 1984]).

Criminal proceedings also have been conducted in private when the complaining witness is a child who is young and immature and is being asked to testify about an emotionally charged issue such as SEXUAL ABUSE (Fayer-weather v. Moran, 749 F. Supp. 43 [D.R.I. 1990]). If the court determines that only one stage of a legal proceeding will be jeopardized by the presence of the public or the media, then only that

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stage should be conducted in private (Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39, 104 S. Ct. 2210, 81 L. Ed. 2d 31 [1984]). For example, if a witness is expected to testify about classified government information or confidential trade secrets, the court may clear the courtroom for the duration of such tes timony, but no longer.

The right to a public trial extends to pretrial proceedings that are integral to the...

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