Criminal Law

Your Constitutional Rights in Sentencing

The sentencing process for criminal defendants is different depending on the state and jurisdiction. However, every criminal defendant in the U.S. has certain fundamental rights regarding sentencing afforded by the U.S. Constitution. Just because they are fundamental rights does not mean they are simple to understand, however.

Below is a brief summary of your constitutional rights in sentencing.

Fifth Amendment Rights

The Fifth Amendment grants two important sentencing rights: The right to not be tried again for the same crime (called double jeopardy), and the right to not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law.

Double Jeopardy

Double jeopardy prevents you from being tried again after being acquitted.

The idea isn't necessarily as simple as it may first appear. A criminal defendant can be tried for two separate crimes involving the same underlying set of facts. For example, a jury may find you not guilty of committing a murder, but the jury could still convict you of manslaughter based on the same set of facts, because murder and manslaughter are two separate crimes. If the judge declares a mistrial, you can also be prosecuted again. A mistrial is not the same thing as being acquitted.

A person can also be found innocent of a crime but still face a civil lawsuit for the same set of facts. Double jeopardy only applies to criminal cases.

Due Process

The due process clause of the Fifth Amendment carries with it numerous rights. Among them are the right to remain silent and the right against providing self-incriminating testimony. Otherwise, anything that deprives you of the due process of law — for example, being sentenced to prison prior to being convicted of a crime in a jury trial — would violate due process.

Sixth Amendment Rights

The Sixth Amendment offers several protections for criminal defendants, including the right to a speedy trial and the right to counsel.

The Right to Counsel

Courts have interpreted the right to counsel to include the sentencing stage of criminal proceedings. Regardless of the charges against you or what sentence you may be facing, you have the right to have a lawyer advise you and argue in court on your behalf. This is an important protection, as it means criminal defendants have the right to an attorney to argue on their behalf for a lower sentence.

The Right to a Trial by Jury

Historically, the right to a trial by jury did not necessarily include all aspects of sentencing. This has changed, however. In Blakely v. Washington, a 2004 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when a judge wants to impose a higher sentence than state or federal sentencing guidelines call for, it violates the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because the judge is making the decision regarding the facts that justified the higher sentence. Now, criminal defendants have the right to have a jury decide if some contested fact should lead to a higher sentence.

The Eighth Amendment Right Against Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." The reason the founders included this in the Bill of Rights was to prevent the kind of state-sponsored oppression seen in previous centuries in Europe, such as the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly, the federal government (and the states) cannot, for example, sentence someone to torture for breaking the law. But people have different ideas of what a "cruel" punishment is. Generally, however, courts have interpreted the Eighth Amendment to protect against:

  • Certain types of capital punishment, such as hanging
  • Punishments that do not fit the crime, like execution for shoplifting
  • Capital punishment against defendants with "diminished capacity"
  • Punishments that are given unequally

States Cannot Violate Due Process or Equal Protection

The 14th Amendment, passed shortly after the end of the Civil War, also provides important protections for criminal defendants in state courts. The 14th Amendment also prohibits states from depriving people of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law. That means the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution also apply in state courts. Any state law or procedure that violates the U.S. Constitution is invalid.

Questions About Your Sentencing Rights? Speak To An Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal defense attorneys understand how important it is to protect your constitutional rights throughout your case, from how law enforcement gathered evidence to sentencing. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, it is important to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to make sure the rights afforded to you under the U.S. Constitution are not violated.