Right to an Attorney

The Right to a Criminal Defense Attorney

The right to representation by counsel in a criminal proceeding is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The government does not always go to great lengths to fulfill its duty to make counsel available to defendants who cannot afford an attorney. In general, however, defendants still have the right to counsel of their choosing. Violations of these rights may be grounds for appeal or may compel reversal of a conviction.

Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” This has applied in federal prosecutions for most of the nation’s history. Many states, however, did not always provide this protection to defendants. Indiana was something of an outlier, having recognized a right to counsel at public expense in the 1850s. Johnson v. Indiana, 948 N.E.2d 331, 336 (Ind. 2011).

The U.S. Supreme Court finally applied the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to the states in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), although the decision only applied to felony cases. The Court later found a right to counsel in state juvenile criminal cases under In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967) and in state misdemeanor proceedings that risk “the actual deprivation of a person’s liberty” under Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 40 (1972).

Individuals have the right to representation by an attorney once a criminal case against them has commenced, and the Supreme Court has also recognized the right to counsel during certain preliminary proceedings. This right is closely related to the right to silence and other rights incident to arrest, known as Miranda rights.

Choice of Attorney

The U.S. Supreme Court has gradually recognized a defendant’s right to counsel of his or her own choosing. A court may deny a defendant’s choice of attorney in certain situations, however, such as if the court concludes that the attorney has a significant conflict of interest. Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153 (1988). The Supreme Court has held that a defendant does not have a right to a “meaningful relationship” with his or her attorney, in a decision holding that a defendant could not delay trial until a specific public defender was available. Morris v. Slappy, 461 U.S. 1, 14 (1983).

Public Defender

The Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright established the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay for an attorney. It mostly left the standards for determining who qualifies for legal representation at public expense to the states. In the federal court system, federal public defenders represent defendants who meet a defined standard for indigence.

Denial of Right to Counsel

Deprivation of a defendant’s right to counsel, or denial of a choice of attorney without good cause, should result in the reversal of the defendant’s conviction, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140 (2006).

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Even if a defendant is represented by an attorney of his or her choosing, he or she may be entitled to relief on appeal if the attorney did not provide adequate representation. A defendant must demonstrate that the attorney’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” and that this was prejudicial to the case. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 688-92 (1984).

Right of Self-Representation

Defendants have the right to represent themselves, known as appearing pro se, in a criminal trial. A court has the obligation to determine whether the defendant fully understands the risks of waiving the right to counsel and is doing so voluntarily.

Right to Counsel in Immigration Proceedings

Immigration proceedings, including deportation hearings, are considered civil in nature, not criminal, so the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not apply. INS v. Lopez-Mendoza, 468 U.S. 1032 (1984). Federal immigration law contains a statutory right to counsel in removal proceedings, but only at no expense to the government.