Many aspects of criminal law focus on the rights of the criminal. However, recent attention has been focused on the rights of the victims of crimes, who often suffer great emotional and physical injuries at the hands of the criminal. All fifty states and the federal government have laws that protect victims. In many states, a victim is considered to be the person who directly suffers the effects of the crimes (such as the person who is murdered) and immediate family members who suffer the secondary effects of the crime (such as the loss of a loved one). If you have been a victim of a crime, know your rights.
- You have the right to seek a criminal complaint against the criminal. As soon as you can, you should contact your local law enforcement agency and report the crime to them. After the police investigate the matter, they may choose to arrest the individual. A prosecutor will then determine what crimes should be charged.
- You have the right to ask for issuance of a criminal complaint if the police decide not to arrest the alleged criminal. You can usually file an application for such a complaint with the court in the jurisdiction (location) where the crime occurred. If the prosecutor, following an investigation, decides not to file the complaint, you can appeal that decision.
- You have the right to testify in a probable cause hearing to determine if a criminal complaint should be transferred to another court to be heard. In a probable cause hearing, you will be required to answer questions posed by both the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney.
- You may be called as a witness at trial. If so, you will be required to testify under oath concerning the crime and will be asked questions by both the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney. You have the right to be present in the courtroom during the trial of the defendant.
- If the defendant is found guilty, you have the right to address the court and jury in person or in writing describing the impact of the crime upon you and your family. You will be allowed to make an “impact statement” regarding what punishment you feel would be appropriate for the defendant. Your victim impact statement is important. It will be used prior to the sentencing phase, and it may be reviewed on appeal. It will also be referenced in any later parole hearings.
- You may have rights in some states to receive victim services and protections. These rights may include the right to the assistance of a victim’s rights worker, personal security and protection services, crisis counseling, emergency transportation services, assistance in the return of recovered personal property, and other rights.
- You have the right, before, during, and after a trial, to be free from harassment about the case. If you feel that you are being harassed, tell the prosecutor or check to see whether the court has a victim witness representative to help you.
- In many states, you have the right to be notified if the defendant is going to be released. You may also have the right to be notified if the defendant escapes from prison or jail.
- You have the right to access to the courts to file a lawsuit if your rights and protections as a victim are not respected.
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