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What You Need To Know About The Right To Assistance Of Counsel

by | May 9, 2022 | Criminal Law

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution contains several guarantees for those against whom criminal charges have been levied. One of the most important guarantees is the right to counsel. The following article will explore the Assistance of Counsel Clause and what it means for you if you are facing criminal charges in Florida.

The Sixth Amendment became part of the United States Constitution in 1791 as part of the larger Bill of Rights. It reads as follows:

“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.”

Although the right to assistance of counsel has been part of the Constitution for over two centuries, it took several Supreme Court cases to shape that right into the form we see it today. For instance, in 1932 the Hughes Court found in Powell v. Alabama that

“… under the circumstances just stated, the necessity of counsel was so vital and imperative that the failure of the trial court to make an effective appointment of counsel was likewise a denial of due process within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Six years later the same court refined the right to assistance of counsel further in Johnson v. Zerbst when Justice Hugo Black wrote,

“Since the Sixth Amendment constitutionally entitles one charged with crime to the assistance of counsel, compliance with this constitutional mandate is an essential jurisdictional prerequisite to a federal court’s authority to deprive an accused of his life or liberty. When this right is properly waived, the assistance of counsel is no longer a necessary element of the court’s jurisdiction to proceed to conviction and sentence. If the accused, however, is not represented by counsel and has not competently and intelligently waived his constitutional right, the Sixth Amendment stands as a jurisdictional bar to a valid conviction and sentence depriving him of his life or his liberty.”

Although the right to assistance of counsel was recognized in Federal courts, most criminal prosecutions are carried out in state courts, where no such right was recognized until the Warren Court ruled so in 1961 in Hamilton v. Alabama, where it held that defendants charged with capital crimes must be given an attorney at no cost to them, even if the defendant displayed no “ignorance, feeble mindedness, illiteracy, or the like.”

One of the most important cases relating to the right to assistance of counsel was decided two years later in Gideon v. Wainwright. In that case, the Warren Court found that the Sixth Amendment required states to provide attorneys to all criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire their own. Speaking for the unanimous court, Justice Black wrote

“[L]awyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries. The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

Currently the only proceedings in which an individual does not have a recognized right to assistance of counsel are grand jury proceedings, as the Court has deemed them not to be criminal proceedings.

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