As a defendant in Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system, you are protected by rights afforded in the U.S. Constitution. Although the Constitution is a federal document, the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment applies its protections to state-level criminal prosecutions.
When facing criminal charges, it is essential to have a clear understanding of your constitutional rights. However, as it is impractical to learn the intricacies of the Constitution on your own (lawyers spend years learning how the Constitution protects their clients), it is best to hire a lawyer who can apply the Constitution’s protections for you. That said, you can fairly easily understanding the basic protections that are available, and you can use this information to discuss any pertinent details with your Philadelphia criminal defense attorney.
10 Fundamental Rights Afforded by the U.S. Constitution in Pennsylvania Criminal Cases
So, if you have been charged with a crime, how does the Constitution protect you? Here are 10 fundamental rights afforded to defendants who are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania:
1. The Right to Due Process
The Fifth Amendment right to due process is one of the most fundamental rights afforded to individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses. It is also one of the most-commonly misunderstood rights contained in the Constitution. The right to due process actually guarantees a number of different protections, several of which we discuss in more detail below. For right now, the main thing you need to know is that due process violations are common in criminal cases, and asserting your right to due process can provide a defense even if you committed the crime alleged.
2. The Protection against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
The Fourth Amendment provides protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the police conduct a search or seize evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment, then the evidence they obtain is inadmissible in court. However, like all of the defenses we discuss in this article, in order to keep illegally-obtained evidence out of your case, you will need to raise the issue in court—and convince the judge that the issue is serious enough to warrant suppression. For this reason, you must hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to assert these defenses on your behalf.
3. The Protection against Self-Incrimination
The protection against self-incrimination, also known as the right to remain silent, appears in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. Under the Fifth Amendment, the police cannot compel you to make self-incriminating statements that can be used against you in court. Additionally, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona, the police are required to inform you of your right to remain silent before conducting a custodial interrogation.
4. The Right to Legal Representation
Under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, criminal defendants are entitled to the “assistance of counsel” when facing the potential for incarceration if convicted at trial. You are entitled to legal representation at all stages of your criminal case, and, when facing criminal charges, it is firmly in your best interest to hire a defense attorney as soon as possible.
5. The Protection against Ex Post Facto Law Enforcement
The Constitution’s protection against ex post facto law enforcement prevents prosecutors from pursuing charge under laws that were not in place at the time of your arrest. For example, let’s suppose that you were improperly arrested for possession of medical marijuana, and then the Pennsylvania legislature revoked the law establishing the state’s medical-marijuana program. Since you were lawfully in possession at the time of your arrest, you could not be prosecuted for unlawful possession due to the law’s revocation after your arrest.
6. The Protection against Surprise Charges and Evidence
As a criminal defendant, you have the constitutional right to know the charges against you, and you are also entitled to know the evidence that the prosecutor’s office intends to present at trial. The process of obtaining this evidence is known as “discovery,” and discovery violations can support motions for suppression and provide leverage for plea deal negotiations in many cases.
7. The Protection against Double Jeopardy
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution also provides protection against being prosecuted twice for the same crime, also known as double jeopardy. If you plead guilty, if you are acquitted prior to or during the trial, or if your case goes to verdict, you cannot legally be prosecuted again for the same offense.
8. The Protection against Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The Eighth Amendment provides well-known protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As a general rule, sentences imposed pursuant to Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines will satisfy the Eighth Amendment’s requirements; however, there are still various circumstances under which a sentence may be deemed unconstitutional.
9. The Right to Confront Witnesses
When facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania, you have the right to question the state’s witnesses. This is known as the right to confrontation (it exists under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment), and it prevents the prosecution from admitting witnesses’ statements into evidence without you being afforded the opportunity to conduct your own questioning.
10. The Right to Be Tried By an Impartial Jury
Finally, you have the right to be tried by an impartial jury. Jury bias is a pervasive issue in Philadelphia, and effective jury selection (through the process known as “voir dire”) is essential for obtaining a fair trial. During the jury selection process, your attorney will have the opportunity to question prospective jurors, and your attorney will be able to strike those who he or she believes are incapable of rendering an impartial verdict.
Discuss Your Case with Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Fishman
In order to protect your constitutional rights during your criminal case in Philadelphia, it is imperative that you have an experienced and effective defense attorney on your side. To discuss your case with a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor Brian Fishman, call 267-758-2228 or request an initial consultation online now.