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

Critical Stage: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Critical Stage. This part provides references, in relation to Critical Stage, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Critical Stage by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
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Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

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Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Critical Stage and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Critical Stage or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Critical Stage and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Critical Stage. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Critical Stage should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Critical Stage when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

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