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The rights of those accused of a crime are spelled out in four of the ten constitutional amendments that make up the Bill of Rights (Amendments Four, Five, Six, and Eight). For the most part, these amendments have been held to apply to both the federal and the state governments. The Fourth Amendment says in part that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Although there are numerous and tricky exceptions to the general rule, ordinarily the police may not break into a person’s house or confiscate his papers or arrest him unless they have a warrant to do so. This means, for instance, that a policeman cannot simply stop you on a street corner and ask to see what is in your pockets (a power the police enjoy in many other countries), nor can your home be raided without probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime. What if the police do search or seize unreasonably?
The courts have devised a remedy for the use at trial of the fruits of an unlawful search or seizure. Evidence that is unconstitutionally seized is excluded from the trial. This is the so-called exclusionary rule, first made applicable in federal cases in 1914 and brought home to the states in 1961. The exclusionary ruleEvidence obtained in violation of constitutional rights from the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments are generally not admissible at trial. is highly controversial, and there are numerous exceptions to it. But it remains generally true that the prosecutor may not use evidence willfully taken by the police in violation of constitutional rights generally, and most often in the violation of Fourth Amendment rights. (The fruits of a coerced confession are also excluded.)
The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from prosecuting a person twice for the same offense. The amendment says that no person shall be “subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” If a defendant is acquitted, the government may not appeal. If a defendant is convicted and his conviction is upheld on appeal, he may not thereafter be reprosecuted for the same crime.
The Fifth Amendment is also the source of a person’s right against self-incrimination (no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”). The debate over the limits of this right has given rise to an immense literature. In broadest outline, the right against self-incrimination means that the prosecutor may not call a defendant to the witness stand during trial and may not comment to the jury on the defendant’s failure to take the stand. Moreover, a defendant’s confession must be excluded from evidence if it was not voluntarily made (e.g., if the police beat the person into giving a confession). In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that no confession is admissible if the police have not first advised a suspect of his constitutional rights, including the right to have a lawyer present to advise him during the questioning.Miranda v. Arizona, 384 US 436 (1966). These so-called Miranda warnings have prompted scores of follow-up cases that have made this branch of jurisprudence especially complex.
The Sixth Amendment tells the government that it must try defendants speedily. How long a delay is too long depends on the circumstances in each case. In 1975, Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act to give priority to criminal cases in federal courts. It requires all criminal prosecutions to go to trial within seventy-five days (though the law lists many permissible reasons for delay).
The Sixth Amendment also says that the defendant shall have the right to confront witnesses against him. No testimony is permitted to be shown to the jury unless the person making it is present and subject to cross-examination by the defendant’s counsel.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to have the assistance of defense counsel. During the eighteenth century and before, the British courts frequently refused to permit defendants to have lawyers in the courtroom during trial. The right to counsel is much broader in this country, as the result of Supreme Court decisions that require the state to pay for a lawyer for indigent defendants in most criminal cases.
Punishment under the common law was frequently horrifying. Death was a common punishment for relatively minor crimes. In many places throughout the world, punishments still persist that seem cruel and unusual, such as the practice of stoning someone to death. The guillotine, famously in use during and after the French Revolution, is no longer used, nor are defendants put in stocks for public display and humiliation. In pre-Revolutionary America, an unlucky defendant who found himself convicted could face brutal torture before death.
The Eighth Amendment banned these actions with the words that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” Virtually all such punishments either never were enacted or have been eliminated from the statute books in the United States. Nevertheless, the Eighth Amendment has become a source of controversy, first with the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1976 that the death penalty, as haphazardly applied in the various states, amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Later Supreme Court opinions have made it easier for states to administer the death penalty. As of 2010, there were 3,300 defendants on death row in the United States. Of course, no corporation is on death row, and no corporation’s charter has ever been revoked by a US state, even though some corporations have repeatedly been indicted and convicted of criminal offenses.
The most important constitutional right in the US criminal justice system is the presumption of innocence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned lower courts in the United States that juries must be properly instructed that the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. This is the origin of the “beyond all reasonable doubt” standard of proof and is an instruction given to juries in each criminal case. The Fifth Amendment notes the right of “due process” in federal proceedings, and the Fourteenth Amendment requires that each state provide “due process” to defendants.
The US Constitution provides several important protections for criminal defendants, including a prohibition on the use of evidence that has been obtained by unconstitutional means. This would include evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment and confessions obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.