When Do I Have a Right to a Lawyer?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on October 03, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When do you have the right to a lawyer? If you watch a lot of Law & Order, you probably know some of the basics. And you might even be able to recite the Miranda warning by heart.

But what exactly does the right to a lawyer mean? Do you know the difference between the right to a court-appointed lawyer guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment versus the right to have an attorney present during police interrogations?

You have the right to a court-appointed lawyer during a criminal case.

The 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney during all major aspects of a criminal case. This means that if you don't have a lawyer and you're facing criminal prosecution, you will be assigned a court-appointed attorney to handle the trial.

For criminal defendants, "major aspects" of a criminal case extends to the trial, sentencing, and usually the first appeal after conviction.

You have the right to a lawyer during custodial interrogations.

Individuals also have a right to an attorney even if they aren't being prosecuted yet. One famous example is that you have a right to an attorney during custodial interrogations. These are also called your Miranda rights. A custodial interrogation occurs anytime a law enforcement official detains a person in order to question them about a criminal investigation. A person is considered "detained" if they aren't free to leave.

If a police officer stops you on the side of the road and starts questioning you, you may not be under arrest. But you might not feel free to leave either. If you aren't free to leave, you have the right to an attorney. 

You may wonder why it's so vital to have the right to a lawyer in the first place. For the most part, having a defense attorney is a safeguard against errors, possible police abuse, and prosecutorial misconduct. And it's a vital component of preserving our civil rights.

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