Understanding Constitutional Rights & Criminal Law

The Constitution of the United States guarantees the rights of all citizens. While the Constitution covers the subject of various rights of United States citizens, there are several amendments of the Constitution that apply to criminal law. These amendments ensure that the rights of criminals are protected before, during, and after their convictions. The most important amendments that apply to criminal law are the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth amendments. All of these constitutional rights must be ensured in criminal legal cases in the United States of America.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable seizure or unnecessary searches of their bodies, homes, cars, or other property. To search a person or their property, a police officer or other law enforcement agent must have reasonable cause to do so. Reasonable cause, however, can vary greatly depending upon several factors, including location. In many cases, an officer observing suspicious behavior in public, including at a traffic stop, is reasonable cause to perform a search of a person or their property. A person’s Fourth Amendment rights must also be weighed against public safety. In most cases, though, a warrant is required to search a person’s home. A search warrant is not necessary if consent is given to enter the home, if the home is entered as part of a lawful arrest, or if the items being searched and seized are in plain sight of the officers.

The Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution covers rights involving criminal prosecution. Perhaps the most well-known clause of this amendment is the portion mentioning self-incrimination. The popular phrase “I plead the Fifth” is referring to this specific portion of the Constitution, which states that a person can not be legally forced to give information if the information they have would incriminate themselves. This amendment also ensures that a person is properly accused of a crime and is only tried one time for a crime. This essentially means that a person cannot be found innocent of a crime and then years later be put on trial once again on the exact same charges for the same crime. This portion of the Fifth Amendment is referred to as the “double jeopardy” clause.

The Sixth Amendment

In the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, an accused citizen’s rights during a criminal trial are covered. Citizens are given the right to be represented by a lawyer, or they can represent themselves if they are found to be mentally competent enough for self-representation. They must also be given the opportunity to have their case heard in front of an impartial, unbiased jury in the state and district where the crime was committed. There are exceptions to these conditions in situations where the crime occurred in multiple states or at sea. In these instances, the location of the trial must then be decided by government officials. The Sixth Amendment also states that an accused citizen must be given the opportunity to confront any witnesses that come forth against them during a criminal trial. It is also due to this amendment that citizens are given the right to a public and speedy trial to minimize the time spent incarcerated before a conclusion in the case is reached.

The Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment is extremely important in protecting the rights of accused citizens. This amendment is vital for ensuring that sentencing and punishments for criminal behaviors are fair and just and in accordance with the crime that was committed. Punishments must not be cruel or unusual for any criminal, nor may any bail or fines be set at extraordinary monetary amounts that are not reasonable. This amendment is often brought up as a cause for debate in instances where the death penalty may be an option in the sentencing portion of a trial.

By Ted Burgess