How Does The United States Constitution Protect U.S. Citizens…
- What parts of our Constitution protect citizens against the Government’s accusations of wrong doing?
- What are the foundations of the rights Americans can claim if they are either accused of an alleged crime or prosecuted for an alleged crime?
The Rights of individuals accused of crimes are protected in many sections of the U.S. Constitution. For example: Article I affirms the right of a Writ of Habeas Corpus, in other words, the right to a court order that requires a judge to evaluate whether there is sufficient cause for keeping a person in jail.
The United States Constitution’s 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 14th Amendments provide the constitutional basis for the most extensive protections of rights that protect citizens from governmental power.
The Principle of Due Process:
“Due process” means that laws must be applied fairly and equally to all people, especially to a U.S. Citizen accused of a crime.
The Constitution states in the 5th and 14th Amendments, that the government shall not deprive anyone of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”
- The 5th Amendment specifically protects people from actions of the federal government
- The 14th protects them from actions by state and local governments.
Searches and Seizures
The purpose of the 4th Amendment is to deny the national government the authority to make “general searches” and seizures of property without a judicial authorization called a “warrant.”
The general principle is that searches are valid methods of enforcing law and order, but unreasonable searches are prohibited. A major issue over the years has been the interpretation of what constitutes an “unreasonable” searches and seizure. The rules can be complicated and always evolving.
The Fourth Amendment
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has interpreted the 4th Amendment to allow the police to conduct warrantless searches under the following circumstances:
- The person “incidental” to their arrest.
- Objects that in and off themselves constitute evidence of a crime which are the “plain view” of law enforcement officers.
- Places or things that a person who is being arrested could “grab” or are otherwise in the person’s “immediate control.
- Property where there is strong suspicion that a person could be in immediate danger due to an “emergency.”
- Automobiles stopped upon the roadway, because they are “mobile.”
The Fifth Amendment
The 5th Amendment requires that a citizen cannot be accused of a serious crime without a grand jury investigation. It also forbids double jeopardy — the act of bringing a person to trial a second time for the same crime.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from calling a citizen to the witness stand during the citizen’s criminal trial, against the citizen’s wishes. This is commonly called the “privilege against self-incrimination.”
Probably the most famous modern interpretation of this provision is “the right to remain silent.” The famous Miranda v. Arizona (1966) case required that a citizen who is in police custody must be advised that they are “a suspect” and that they do not have to answer the law enforcement officer’s questions and to have a lawyer with them, if they do choose to answer questions.
This intended to prevent forced or involuntary confessions under police pressure. All police departments must issue warnings known as “Miranda Rights” to people that they arrest.
The Supreme Court has established that “involuntary confessions” cannot be used against a citizen in court.
The Exclusionary Rule
A very important principle related to the 4th and 5th Amendments is the “exclusionary rule,” which established the principle that evidence gathered illegally cannot be used in a trial. Illegally garnered evidence must be “excluded.”
The 6th Amendment and Right to Counsel
The 6th Amendment guarantees that an individual accused of a crime has the right “to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
What if a person can’t afford to have a lawyer for his or her defense?
Clarence Earl Gideon could not afford counsel when he went to trial for breaking into a poolroom in Bay Harbor, Florida. He was convicted and sent to prison, where he spent years researching his rights. Finally, he successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case.
In the 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court commanded that anyone and everyone, accused of a felony had to be provided counsel to assist in their defense.
The 8th Amendment and Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The 8th Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” a concept rooted in English law. But again, what does the phrase really mean? By far, the most
controversial issue that centers on the 8th Amendment is capital punishment, or the practice of issuing death sentences to those convicted of major crimes.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
In general, states are allowed to pursue their own policies regarding capital punishment. The Supreme Court did not challenge the death penalty until 1972 in Furman v. Georgia. Even then, it did not judge capital punishment to be cruel and unusual punishment. It simply warned the states that the death penalty was to be carried out in a fair and consistent manner.