Criminal Rights Amendments
The drafters of the Bill of Rights believed that constitutional protection against arbitrary prosecution was a critical check on government power. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments safeguard individuals from abusive practices in the criminal process and limit the government's ability to prosecute unjustly. Many scholars consider these amendments to be the most important provisions of the Bill of Rights.
No Illegal Searches or Seizures
The Fourth Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” without a properly authorized warrant. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourth Amendment to mean that evidence obtained illegally (or without a warrant) by law enforcement officials is excluded from trial. This is not an absolute rule, however. The exception to the exclusionary rule is when law enforcement officials make a “good faith” effort to follow established procedures. In those situations, the evidence is admissible. This is a fluid area of case law, and has been subject to numerous modifications over the years.
The Right Against Self-Incrimination
Most Americans are familiar with the Fifth Amendment from movies and popular culture, in which “I plead the Fifth” is a commonly used phrase. The Fifth Amendment is the longest in the Bill of Rights. It establishes the following:
No “Double Jeopardy” Trials: A person cannot be tried twice for the same crime.
The Right Against Self-Incrimination: A person cannot be forced to testify against himself or herself in a criminal trial. Only when a person is granted immunity from prosecution can an individual be compelled to testify against himself.
The Right to a Grand Jury: A person cannot be held for a crime punishable by death without a grand jury indictment.
In the landmark 1961 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, the court created the notion of “Miranda Rights” from the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Under Miranda Rights, law enforcement officials must inform suspects of their constitutional right to ask for an attorney and to remain silent. In recent years, the Supreme Court has weakened Miranda protections.
The Right to Counsel and Jury Trial
The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to a speedy jury trial and the right to counsel (the right to have an attorney represent the defendant). In 1963, the Court widened the right to counsel to include felony arrests — cases in which the threat of imprisonment exceeds one year. And later, the Court broadened it again to include any case that held a possible prison term. (It's important to note that there is no right to an attorney in civil cases.) The court will appoint an attorney if a criminal defendant cannot afford one.
The right to an attorney has evolved over the years. In 1932, the Supreme Court held that the right to an attorney applied only to capital offenses, which are cases with the threat of the death penalty. The right to a jury trial includes the right to be tried before a representative jury. For decades, several southern states excluded African-Americans and women from jury pools, a practice that is now deemed unconstitutional.
No Cruel and Unusual Punishment
The Eighth Amendment consists of only sixteen words: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Although the death penalty has never been held by the Supreme Court to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, certain methods of execution have been, such as public hanging and torture. The Supreme Court has expanded the Eighth Amendment to include a prohibition against using torture and other forceful measures to obtain confessions from criminal suspects.
The Supreme Court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment has also given rise to the practice of separating the sentencing stage from the conviction in capital cases. Once a felon is convicted of a capital crime, the sentencing phase begins, and the jury hears evidence from the prosecution and defense on whether the death penalty should be imposed.
The Seventh Amendment establishes that “in suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of a trial by jury shall be preserved.” At the time, the twenty-dollar threshold was quite high; today, every civil case tried in federal court has a jury unless both parties stipulate otherwise.