All Americans Should be Provided Legal Representation
Many Americans are familiar with the rights that are afforded to them at the time of arrest, the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. In the United States, there are more than one-hundred-million cases filed in state courts and nearly a half of a million cases filed in federal courts each year (IAALS | Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System - University of Denver). A large percentage of the filed cases never go to trial. Although an individual is informed of their right to an attorney at the time of arrest, many do not know that a judge can determine that should the accused be found guilty, they will not serve jail or prison time. Thus the requirement of providing an attorney to those that cannot afford one is null. All Americans accused of a crime should be provided an attorney regardless of the severity of their punishment.
First, the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides American's the right to legal counsel. The Sixth Amendment states in its entirety, "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" ("Sixth Amendment Activities"). The language of the Sixth Amendment clearly states that a defendant has the right to legal assistance. How the right attaches in legal proceedings has been developed over time. Many court cases have shed light and set the precedent of the expectations of the right to counsel.
Although the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides the right to legal counsel, providing an attorney to indigents is not addressed within the Amendment. The holding in the 1932 case Powell v. Alabama initiated the provision that Americans that are unable to secure an attorney due to financial limitation would be provided assistance at no cost. The holding in Powell v. Alabama stated, "...where the defendant is unable to employ counsel, and is incapable adequately of making his own defense... it is the duty of the court, whether requested or not, to assign counsel..." ("FindLaw's United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions."). The 1932 case began the molding of the right to counsel through case law, standardizing that all individuals, including indigents, need to be afforded the Sixth Amendment right. Additional case law continued to develop an understanding of American's right to counsel.
Six years following Powell v. Alabama (1932), Johnson v. Zerbst brought more attention to the Sixth Amendment in 1938. The ruling in Johnson v. Zerbst set the standard that defendants should be represented by legal counsel during all stages of the prosecution ("Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1938)"). Stages of the prosecution mostly refer to the actions that take place inside a courtroom. The 1938 ruling did not clarify the right to an attorney at the time of an arrest or during questioning. The investigation that leads up to trial is just as vital as the trial process. Despite uncertain clarity surrounding the right to legal counsel, it was an additional twenty-five years before another landmark case was heard in the United States Supreme Court that addressed the Sixth Amendment right of assistance of legal counsel.
Historically, the right to legal counsel was only provided in Federal court cases. It was the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright that grabbed the attention of the United States Supreme Court and required the review of the Sixth Amendment, yet again. The decision in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) determined that the right to counsel should attach to State level cases, just as it did to Federal cases ("Facts and Case Summary - Gideon v. Wainwright"). The ruling clarified the significance of the need for the general public to have access to legal counsel. Defendants are unlikely to understand all of the laws and procedures of the criminal justice system to be able to adequately defend themselves.
The 1966 proceeding of Miranda v. Arizona was an additional United States Supreme Court case that shed light on the rights of Americans. The United States Supreme Court holding regarding Miranda v. Arizona stated:
"without proper safeguards the process of in-custody interrogation of persons suspected or accused of crime contains inherently compelling pressures which work to undermine the individual's will to resist and to compel him to speak where he would otherwise do so freely." Therefore, a defendant "must be warned prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires." ("Facts and Case Summary - Miranda v. Arizona")
Looking at the language of the statement provided in the Miranda v. Arizona United States Supreme Court holding, it can be seen that legal counsel should be provided at the time of questioning and that the individual that is being accused of a crime must be made aware of their right to legal representation. The ruling in Miranda further clarified the right to counsel. Miranda v. Arizona, in conjunction with Johnson v. Zerbst, defined the right to legal counsel to include notifying the individual accused of a crime that the right exists, the right to counsel during questioning, and the right to legal representation at all stages of criminal prosecution.
One last mentionable court proceeding that contributed to the right to an attorney is Argersinger v. Hamlin. Argersinger v. Hamlin took place in 1972. The decisions in Argersinger v. Hamlin led to the determination that the right to legal representation must be extended to any individual brought forth for criminal prosecution and also faces jail time ("Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972)"). Argersinger v. Hamlin is perhaps one of the most recent cases that address the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. However, the wording of the ruling is specific to addressing that the right to legal counsel is extended only if the individual is accused of a crime and is facing jail time. The language leads to individuals being unrepresented by an attorney if they are being prosecuted for a crime that does not hold the punishment of jail time, or if a judge determines that although the offense is punishable by imprisonment that the individual will not be subjected to jail time.
It has been established that an individual accused of a criminal act has a Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The right to legal representation has been further defined as including the right to legal representation during all stages of prosecution and during interrogation. The accused individual must also be informed of their Sixth Amendment right. However, the right to an attorney does not apply if the crime is not punishable by imprisonment or if the judge determines that no jail time will be served. The imprisonment caveat creates a scenario where an individual lacking legal knowledge can be wrongfully found guilty and will have a criminal record that will follow them for the remainder of their life.
The implications of a guilty verdict can negatively impact an individual's livelihood, even if there is an absence of imprisonment. Once found guilty, the defendant will become stigmatized for the remainder of their life due to having a criminal record. An individual with a criminal record could find it difficult to find gainful employment. Securing housing could also be problematic for an individual with a criminal record. Although the individual that is found guilty of criminal activity, they are still lifelong repercussions of a guilty verdict. Therefore all Americans that are accused of a crime should be afforded their right to legal counsel in order to reasonably defend themselves in a court of law.
Defendants that can afford an attorney can seek legal counsel even when there is no potential jail time to be served. Americans that are unable to secure an attorney themselves are unfairly unrepresented. Americans should be represented equally when facing the government in a court of law, regardless of their financial abilities. Yes, affording an attorney to those who are unable to secure one themselves would directly impact the workload of public defenders and increase the cost of these offices that are supported by the American taxpayer. More needs to done to support the offices of public defender's in order to allow them to efficiently facilitate the rights of Americans.
The current state of public defender offices is in dire need of additional funding to lessen the workload of those who represent the underprivileged. In 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted an in-depth study of public defender offices. The study included offices from forty-nine states and the District of Columbia. The findings of the report suggested that approximately seventy-three percent of county-based public defender offices exceeded the maximum number of the recommended limit of cases received per attorney during the year of 2007 (United States Department Of Justice. Office Of Justice Programs. Bureau Of Justice Statistics). Funding needs to be increased to employ additional public defenders to support the needs of Americans now and in the future. Although the offices of public defenders are currently experiencing a high volume of cases, exceeding the recommended workload, this does not mean that the rights of Americans should be diminished.
Given the history of the evolution of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, an important question still remains unclear. At what moment does the right legal counsel attach? Steven J. Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis, analyzed the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution as well as the language of many United States Supreme Court cases that address the Sixth Amendment, attempting to provide a better understanding to this profound question. Professor Mulroy's conclusion suggested that a pre-charge right to counsel exists; he also proposed that a new rule clarifying that the right to counsel attaches whenever a prosecutor is involved in substantive communications with a defendant should be acknowledged (Mulroy). A rule similar to Professor Mulroy's suggestion would offer clarity and provide uniformity across the nation. Not all States interpret the Sixth Amendment right in the same way.
The right to counsel is provided in the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. However, across the nation, varying interpretations of this right exist from State to State. States are guided by their individual Constitutions regarding when the right to an attorney attaches to a criminal proceeding. In Arizona, at the defendant's initial appearance they are informed of their right, and appointment of counsel occurs if the defendant is eligible; however, in Arkansas, it is required that a judicial officer determines the defendant's ability to retain counsel prior to their first appearance, and counsel shall be appointed if the indigent does not knowingly and intelligently waive counsel (Pretrial Right to Counsel). A uniform approach as to when the right to the guidance of legal counsel attaches is needed in America.
There is a known, but uncommon, existence of individuals being found guilty of criminal activity to later be exonerated. A subsequently determined, unjust guilty verdict occurs even when the accused has knowledgeable legal counsel guiding them throughout the criminal justice process. The Innocence Project is an organization that works to free individuals that have been wrongly convicted. In 2019 alone, one-hundred-forty-three innocent individuals were exonerated, collectively serving one-thousand-nine-hundred-eight years behind bars ("Innocence Project - Help Us Put an End to Wrongful Convictions!"). If nearly one-hundred-fifty defendants were found to be innocent in just one year, all who were able to provide their own attorney or were appointed one, imagine how many guilty verdicts were dissented among unrepresented individuals just because they did not serve jail time but rather only significantly impacted by their life-long criminal record.
The Sixth Amendment right of the assistance to legal counsel has undergone a robust transformation from its inception to how it is known in today's criminal justice system. Powell v. Alabama (1932) provided counsel to indigents incapable of representing themselves and who were facing the death penalty, later, in 1938, Johnson v. Zerbst, confirmed the need for representation at every stage of the prosecution, and also stressed that even the most intelligent layman needs the guiding hand of representation. The 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright determined that the right to counsel should be extended to both State and Federal prosecution of felonies. More recently, the case of Argersinger v. Hamlin (1972) extended the right to representation to all individuals brought forth for criminal proceedings that, if convicted, face imprisonment, even if the duration of imprisonment is a single day. Although the Sixth Amendment has been addressed multiple times over the years, it calls for further review.
American's need to be afforded the right to legal counsel even during the absence of imprisonment. Defendants may be more inclined to plead guilty in the absence of legal counsel, despite their innocence, in order to move-on and not prolong their criminal proceedings. Guilty verdicts are more likely to be brought upon innocent individuals who are unfamiliar with the laws of the criminal justice system. The lack of legal counsel causes an unknowing layman to present their case in front of an all-knowing judge. A judge should not be allowed to predetermine that the accused shall not serve a term of imprisonment without first hearing the case, a case that is presented by an educated defense attorney.
The thought process that the assistance of legal counsel is not needed in the event that a defendant will not serve a term of imprisonment is unjust. The criminal record that will result following a guilty verdict is a form of life-long imprisonment. The individual found guilty, and therefore has a criminal record is presented with lifetime obstacles in their journey to navigate the remainder of their existence. An individual with a criminal record is sometimes an unattractive employee, hindering them from advancing their career. Landlords may be unfavorable in tenants with a criminal past, preventing the individual from securing desirable housing. The ramifications of a guilty verdict and criminal record are significant. No American should be asked to navigate the remainder of their years carrying a criminal record without first being allowed to be adequately represented in a court of all. All Americans should be afforded the Sixth Amendment right of assistance to legal counsel.
"Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972)." Justia Law.
"Facts and Case Summary - Gideon v. Wainwright." United States Courts.
"Facts and Case Summary - Miranda v. Arizona." United States Courts.
"FindLaw's United States Supreme Court Case and Opinions." Findlaw.
Mulroy, Steven J. "The Bright Line's Dark Side: Pre-Charge Attachment of the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel." Washington Law Review, vol. 92, no. 1, Mar. 2017, pp. 213-. Gale OneFile: LegalTrac.
Pretrial Right to Counsel.
"Sixth Amendment Activities." United States Courts.
United States Department Of Justice. Office Of Justice Programs. Bureau Of Justice Statistics. Census of Public Defender Offices: County-Based and Local Offices, 2007: Version 1. ICPSR - Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, 2011. DOI.org (Datacite), doi:10.3886/ICPSR29502.V1.