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Fifth and Sixth Amendments: Your right to counsel

Being charged with a crime can be a very confusing time, especially if it is your first time being arrested. Police officers can be intimidating, and it can be difficult for defendants to know when they are allowed and need to have an attorney present. Both the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution lay out the citizens' right to counsel. Gaining a better understanding of these rights can help those charged with crimes understand when and how an attorney can help.

As a general rule, the sooner you can have an attorney present, the better. While the Fifth Amendment states that the defendant's right to have an attorney present while being questioned in custody, the Sixth Amendment is much broader. Once you are accused of a crime, you have the right to an attorney during any interrogations, hearings and even lineups.

You also have the right to an attorney during arraignment (when you enter your plea), the trial period and the appeals process, if applicable. Having legal counsel during this stage may make it easier to get a prosecutor to agree to the possibility of a plea bargain or ensure that the defendant doesn't make a plea that is not in his or her best interests.

It's important not to wait until trial to decide you want an attorney. Having an attorney present during or even before arraignment can ensure that you are fully informed on the different criminal defense options and are making a plea decision with the full knowledge of how that plea will affect the rest of the case.

Source: National Paralegal College, "The Right to Effective Assistance of Counsel," accessed June 18, 2015

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