When Do You Have a Right to an Attorney?

The right to an attorney is enshrined in the United States Constitution as one of the fundamental rights that every American has by birthright. After all, how can someone defend themselves in court if they aren’t given access to legal expertise, which they are unlikely to have themselves? But things are more complicated than they first appear, because there are two slightly different rights to an attorney, and the distinction can be important.

The right to an attorney is guaranteed by two Constitutional Amendments in the Bill of Rights: The Fifth Amendment, and the Sixth Amendment. Though both Amendments guarantee your right to an attorney, they have a couple of important distinctions between them. First is the difference in timing: the 5th Amendment right to counsel guarantees your right to a lawyer while you’re being interrogated in police custody; the 6th Amendment right to counsel, on the other hand, guarantees your right to counsel during the critical parts of a criminal prosecution.

However, there’s another, more significant difference: the 6th Amendment requires the court to appoint you a lawyer if you can’t afford one at the time of your arraignment (when you’re formally charged with a crime). The 5th Amendment requires police to allow you access to a lawyer, if you already have one, but they aren’t required to provide you with one, because an arrest doesn’t necessarily signal the beginning of a criminal prosecution. Thus, you can be in a situation where you are legally entitled to have an attorney, but you aren’t yet legally entitled to have one appointed to you by the court. And if you’re being interrogated by the police, it can be very helpful to have an attorney present to advise you on your rights.

Those who have been charged with a crime can face serious legal consequences. A New York criminal defense lawyer, who is experienced in handling criminal cases of all sorts, can advise you of your legal rights and will fight for your best interests in court. If you or your loved one has been arrested, contact the Suffolk County criminal defense attorneys at McGuire, Peláez and Bennett at (631) 348-1702.

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