Critical Stage

Critical Stage in the United States

The point in a criminal proceeding at which an accused person is entitled to assistance of counsel. Critical stage assistance is essential to protecting the rights of an accused person and may substantially affect the criminal process as a whole. The Supreme Court has defined a critical stage as one where a defendant is required to take a step that might influence subsequent steps. Similarly, if a defendant has an opportunity to do something that may affect later proceedings, even though it may only be optional, the stage is sufficiently critical to require assistance of counsel. The decisive consideration is whether something may occur at a particular stage that will impact or prejudice adjudication of guilt. For example, if a defendant confesses during interrogation, that act may be difficult to reverse at subsequent stages. Thus it is a “critical stage.” See also Assistance of Counsel (Criminal Process).

Analysis and Relevance

The trial itself was the only critical stage of the criminal process requiring assistance of counsel until 1963. When the Supreme Court mandated trial assistance for all felonies in Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335: 1963), it was inevitable that other steps in the criminal process would be reconsidered as well. Soon after the Gideon decision, such pretrial stages as custodial interrogations (Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436: 1966), post-indictment investigations (Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201: 1964), preliminary hearings (White v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 59: 1963), and post-indictment line-up processes (United States v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218: 1967) were determined to be critical stages. Indeed, just prior to Gideon, the Court had decided in Hamilton v. Alabama (368 U.S. 52: 1961) that counsel assistance was required at arraignments. The critical stage approach has also been extended to such post-trial proceedings as sentencing, probation revocation, and appeals. The formal recognition of so many critical stages reflects the extremely high priority the Supreme Court assigns to assistance of counsel. In effect, all government actions in a criminal case beginning with custodial interrogations and thereafter are deemed critical and require assistance of counsel.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Critical Stage from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California



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