The Sixth Amendment right to “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” is another protection meant to ensure that the accused receives a fair trail. A speedy, public trial that is heard by an impartial jury is meaningless if a defendant is left in the dark about exactly the crime with which he or she is charged.
The Sixth Amendment is ratified as part of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment guarantees the rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions.
In United States v. Cruikshank, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a 16-count indictment against people accused of violating the 1870 Civil Rights Act, a law designed to protect recently freed African Americans. The Court explains that the Sixth Amendment right to “be informed” has two purposes: (1) for the defendant to be able to defend himself or herself against specific charges and (2) for the court to know if there is enough evidence to convict the defendant. The Court says the charges in this case were not specific enough and, therefore, violated the Sixth Amendment. If not for this right, then anyone could be indicted on the basis of vague accusations.
In Rosen v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” was not violated when the charge against him – sending obscene material through the mail – did not include a description of each image that was alleged to be obscene. The Court rules that it was not critical to helping with his defense at the lower court and also notes that he never raised the issue in his original trial. As long as he and the lower court were clear on the charges, then his rights were not violated.
In Cole v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a state court that convicted four defendants for violating a particular provision of an Arkansas law, Section 2. When they appealed, the state appeals court decided the defendants deserved to be convicted under a different provision, Section 1, even though the defendants had never been charged with violating Section 1. The justices rule that this decision violated the defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to know all the charges against them so they can put on a complete defense.
In Rabe v. Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment (which guarantees the right to a fair hearing that follows the rules) is violated when a state law fails to explain exactly what conduct is prohibited. In Rabe, the defendant was convicted under Washington’s obscenity law after he showed an X-rated movie at his drive-in theater. The trial court concluded that the movie was not technically “obscene.” However, the fact that the movie was shown at a drive-in – making it visible to viewers other than consenting adults – made it illegal. The justices reverse the conviction, finding that the state’s obscenity law makes no distinction between obscene material that is shown in private and material that is shown in public.
Although this case does not directly involve a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to be informed of charges, it shows the importance of people having a right to know what conduct is considered criminal.