Protecting individuals from government abuse is one of the cornerstones of the US Constitution. The drafters of the Bill of Rights included sixteen guarantees directly related to the criminal justice system. Before the Supreme Court focused their attentions on interpreting these guarantees, however, enforcement was scant and inconsistent. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the present, the Supreme Court has provided an extensive array of guidelines aimed at regulating the behavior of law enforcement to protect people’s constitutional rights. Below is a brief overview of the criminal justice guarantees contained in the Bill of Rights and several highlights of judicial interpretation.
The Fourth Amendment:
- protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures
- requires that police have probable cause before making an arrest or conducting a search
The Supreme Court has provided police with a long list of things they can and cannot do in relation to searches and seizures, and while particulars may vary between states, the fundamental notion that individuals have a right to be free from governmental intrusion without good reason remains a constant in all jurisdictions.
The Fifth Amendment:
- requires grand jury indictment for felonies at the federal level
- protects people against being tried twice for the same crime, or “double jeopardy”
- guarantees the right against self-incrimination
- generally prohibits the deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law
Arguably one of the most famous cases in Supreme Court history, Miranda v. Arizona dealt with the right against self-incrimination. The Miranda warnings are designed specifically to prevent suspects from having to be a witness against themselves. Some form of the warnings are required before “custodial interrogations” in every state in the US.
The notion of due process, which enters into nearly every stage of the criminal prosecution, relates to the issue of fundamental fairness. While there have been countless opinions written on this concept, courts must generally look at the facts of each case to determine whether a defendant’s right to due process has been violated.
The Sixth Amendment focuses on rights granted to people during the actual prosecution stage. It ensures the rights to:
- a speedy trial
- a public trial
- an impartial jury
- notice and nature of the charges
- to confront opposing witnesses
- the ability to obtain witnesses favorable to the defense
- the right counsel
The Supreme Court has most extensively interpreted the right to counsel. The Court has held that the government must provide counsel to indigent defendants at the state’s expense, that the right applies not only to felony offenses but also those misdemeanor offenses where jail time is a possible punishment, and that the right to counsel applies only at the stage in a criminal prosecution when “substantial rights” of the defendant are at stake.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits against:
- requiring excessive bail
- imposing excessive fines
- inflicting cruel and unusual punishment
Aside from the area of capital punishment, the Eighth Amendment guarantees are relatively straightforward.
Balancing the needs of public safety against the rights of the individual is at the heart of the criminal justice provisions of the Constitution. Courts, law enforcement and advocates are involved in a constant debate about how best to accommodate both aims within the parameters of the law. While the US criminal justice system is far from perfect, the dynamic nature of the Bill of Rights and system of checks and balances makes the US system one of the fairest in the world.
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