The US Constitution’s Influence on the Criminal Justice System

The foundation of the American criminal justice system is located within the U.S. Constitution, specifically in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution which guarantees every U.S. citizen certain fundamental liberties and rights. About criminal procedures, the foremost of these rights is the assumption of innocence. Though not explicitly written into the Constitution, this presumption has been interpreted by several court rulings as implied in the Eighth and Fifth Amendments.

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It has become a fundamental right that is universally recognized by the courts and public alike. Under this presumption, defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Defendants do not have to prove their innocence. The government must establish guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ This right and others are outlined in four Amendments, the Fourth which protects against searches and seizures without the benefit of a court warrant, in addition to the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth which will be further examined in this discussion.

These aforementioned four Amendments are essential to the U.S. criminal justice system functioning as the framers of the Constitution envisioned it. The omission of all or parts of these Amendments in any phase of the criminal justice system deprives a defendant of their right to the due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Due process, in essence, is a clause that encompasses the precepts of these Amendments.

It protects U.S. citizens from policies or practices which infringe upon basic, fundamental concepts of justice and fairness whether or not actions by the government violate specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights. The criterion of criminal law is whether the disputed policy or practice violates an essential standard of justice and liberty inherent in the concept of a free society. Particularly important to this precept are the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments.

Criminal justice in the U.S. is a complex system involving local, state, and federal jurisdictions, all unique in their structure and policies but decisions handed down by any court are based on the due process of law guaranteed by the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment guarantees the defendant’s right to ‘due process of law’ and from being subjected to ‘double jeopardy’ or testifying against themselves. Double jeopardy means being put on trial twice for the same offense (U.S. Department of State, 2001).

The ‘Miranda Rights’ are covered by the Fifth Amendment. Even those who have never been issued a traffic citation can recite these rights if they have watched television in the last 40 years. In 1966, the Supreme Court cited the Fifth Amendment in its decision to require law enforcement officials to read every arrestee their rights including the phrase ‘you have the right to remain silent.’ This ensures that the police do not coerce someone into testifying or being a witness against themselves. According to this ruling, “if at any time the suspect indicated a wish to stop talking or to see a lawyer, police had to stop questioning immediately. Failure to deliver the warning, obtain the waiver, or cut off questioning when requested automatically bars the use at trial of statements obtained from the suspect” (Cassell & Markman, 1995).

Defendants are guaranteed the right to a ‘speedy trial’ and an ‘impartial jury’ by the Sixth Amendment. Furthermore, it assures that defendants can confront, ‘cross examine,’ any witnesses brought by the prosecutor against them and have adequate legal representation to defend their case (U.S. Department of State, 2001). Until relatively recently, the Sixth Amendment was interpreted to mean the defendant had the right to an attorney of their choice but not to be appointed one if they could not afford it. Today, the courts interpret this Sixth Amendment right to include appointing an attorney for defendants that can’t pay for one.

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Before the Gideon v. Wainwright ruling in 1963, courts had generally understood that legal representation would be appointed in special situations only such as when the defendant was not capable of comprehending the charges brought against them because of a mental deficiency. This was accepted as being fair and just but disregarded the indigent who could not afford legal counsel.

Gideon was a compelling affirmation that both groups, those that could not understand the charges and those that did not have the financial means to retain counsel, were at an equal disadvantage and that all citizens had a fundamental right to be represented by legal counsel. “The underpinning of Gideon is the notion that a fair trial requires a balance of power, and to the extent that the government spends money in support of the prosecution, it should also spend money on defense” (Black, 1963).

Of course, the Gideon decision did not create a system in which the rich and poor have equal access to justice; it remained a system in which money buys the best attorneys and the means to appeal a decision to the full extent allowed. The case did establish that during the initial phase that defendants enter the justice system, the pretrial process, both rich and poor are treated similarly. The right to have an attorney during the pretrial phase is a vital aspect of the due process of law because “it holds everyone up to the same standards at the most critical stages of criminal justice, preventing the creation of a dual system of justice at the bottom, one for the rich and one for the poor” (Black, 1963).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits courts from assessing ‘excessive bail’ and implementing ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ Whether capital punishment should be considered cruel and/or unusual has been the subject of intense debate in the public, political and judicial realm for some time. In 1972, the Supreme Court voided the use of the death penalty essentially because of a constitutional technicality but it was soon reinstated in 38 states after their statutes were rewritten to comply with the Constitution. Recently, the Eighth Amendment along with the Fifth has been invoked in the discussion of the treatment of Guantanamo Bay ‘enemy combatants’ (U.S. State Department, 2001).

The Eighth Amendment guarantees that courts cannot assess excessive bail, not that bail must be provided. From 1787 until now, courts have understood that some criminals have committed atrocities so heinous that allowing them their freedom before the speedy trial they are guaranteed would jeopardize the lives of others. Those that are judged to be a ‘flight risk’ are also denied bail. This decision to allow or deny bail is made at a formal hearing attended by both prosecuting and defending attorneys.

The Supreme Court has held that the punishment is not disproportionate to the offense. This subjective concept has been defined as punishment not more severe than others receive who have committed comparable crimes. “The Supreme Court says the government cannot torture convicts nor punish them arbitrarily or unnecessarily. The Founders wanted to avoid any return to such barbarous and discontinued English practices as disemboweling a convict and then pulling off his arms and legs” (Ambrose, 2006).

The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the guide for all criminal law processes within the judicial system. The Bill of Rights safeguards citizens against the abuse of governmental powers by imposing limits on the methods by which it can treat people accused of crimes against the state and provides for equal treatment in the justice system.

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References

Ambrose, Jay. (2006). “The Eighth Amendment: Matching the punishment with the crime.” Traverse City Record Eagle.

Black, J. (1963). “Opinion of the Court Supreme Court Of The United States 372 U.S. 335 Gideon v. Wainwright.” Supreme Court Collection. Cornell University Law School. Web.

Cassell, Paul & Markman, Stephen J. (1995). “Miranda Rights and the Criminal Justice System.” National Review.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2001). “Criminal Justice in the U.S.” Issues of Democracy. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Vol. 6, N. 1.

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