The front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC

With the recent announcement of the Trump administration’s proposal of a new Supreme Court justice to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, many are discussing the future of certain civil rights in the United States. However, in the most recent round of decisions, the Supreme Court upheld two important rights of criminal defendants—the right to defense counsel and the right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to have the assistance of counsel to defend against criminal allegations. A defendant also has the right to determine the objective of her or his own defense—for example, whether to plead guilty to a crime or to maintain their innocence at a jury trial. In the case of McCoy v. Louisiana, SCOTUS held that when a criminal defense lawyer goes against the defendant’s wishes, it deprives the defendant of the right to assistance of counsel.

In that case, the defendant, Robert McCoy, insisted that he did not kill his estranged wife’s son and parents. His defense attorney feared that the defendant would face the death penalty if convicted and tried to convince McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for the reduced sentence of life in prison. McCoy refused and stood by his version of events and that he was not guilty. The attorney then took it upon himself to tell the jury that McCoy was guilty, hoping they would not sentence the defendant to death if the issue of guilt was off the table.

The jury found McCoy guilty and sentenced him to the death penalty, and the defendant appealed the decision up to the Supreme Court. The Court held that the defendant had the prerogative and right to determine whether or not to admit guilt. When McCoy was convicted and sentenced after his lawyer stated his guilt against his wishes, the state deprived him of his 6th Amendment right to counsel.

This case indicates how important the choice of a criminal defense attorney can be. Not only should you have defense representation, but you are entitled to have effective defense representation. Effective assistance of counsel includes informing you of all the potential legal defenses, possible consequences of a guilty plea or jury trial, and more. Defendants who pled guilty or went to trial and suffered unforeseen consequences—such as deportation—may have the right to appeal based on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Right to Privacy

The Fourth Amendment provides the right of individuals against unreasonable search and seizure by authorities. To ensure this right, law enforcement must obtain a warrant or must prove there were specific exigent circumstances that justified a warrantless search. This applies to a car, home, or anywhere an individual would have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

In Byrd v. U.S., Terrence Byrd was driving a rental car when police pulled him over for a suspected traffic offense. Police soon learned that only Byrd’s girlfriend was on the rental agreement and Byrd did not have authority to be driving the vehicle. Police used this fact to justify a search of the car, including the locked trunk, where they found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.

Byrd argued that the search of the car was unreasonable and, therefore, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. SCOTUS agreed unanimously. Police argued that because Byrd did not own the car and the rental agreement did not include him, he did not have a right to privacy in the vehicle and the search was legal. However, the Court determined that Byrd did, in fact, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle and that searching the locked trunk without a warrant did violate his rights.

Fourth Amendment violations are critical to many criminal cases. If police officers find evidence—such as drugs or weapons—in violation of a defendant’s rights, a skilled defense attorney can argue that any illegally obtained evidence should be suppressed and not used against the defendant. In many situations, such evidence is all the prosecutor has to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

For instance, imagine that a police officer searches your vehicle without a warrant or authority and finds unlawful drugs. You will then likely be arrested and charged with drug possession, a crime with potentially lasting consequences. If your defense lawyer successfully demonstrates that the search was illegal, the court will likely suppress any evidence stemming from that search, including the drugs themselves. Without being able to prove that officers found drugs, a prosecutor will not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you possessed drugs in most cases. This can result in the state dropping your charges.

Supreme Court Decisions in Criminal Cases

Not many criminal cases make it up to the Supreme Court. However, SCOTUS rulings on criminal matters can often have a substantial and important impact on all future criminal cases across the United States. You want to ensure you have a defense attorney who understands all applicable Supreme Court decisions and their implications for defendants. Some cases involve the following issues, among many others:

  • When police can search a suspect’s smartphone
  • When a judge should set aside a guilty plea
  • What type of bail or sentence is unjust in certain cases
  • When the prosecution must reveal exculpatory evidence (always)
  • When law enforcement action constituted extortion

Unfortunately, not every attorney always identifies when a past Court decision may affect their client’s case. You should always seek assistance from a lawyer with extensive defense experience and knowledge. If you believe you received an unfair outcome because authorities violated your rights, do not hesitate to discuss your options to appeal with a knowledgeable criminal defense and civil rights attorney.

Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Who Can Defend Your Rights

At The Zeiger Firm, we are committed to providing the highest quality of defense for every client at all stages of their cases. If you need assistance with any type of criminal matter, please call 215-546-0340 or contact us online as soon as possible.

Brian J. Zeiger, Esquire, is an experienced and successful criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is a seasoned trial lawyer with significant experience before juries and judges. Brian understands civil rights cases, including Taser, Wrongful Death, Excessive Force, Police Brutality, Police Misconduct, Malicious Prosecution, Monell Claims, Sexual Assault, Prisoner’s Rights, Time Credit, Medical Malpractice, and Medical Indifference.