When the government accuses a person of committing a crime, the U.S. Constitution provides numerous protections for the alleged criminal. Like most of the constitutional rights that people are familiar with, these are found in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Below is a summary of the four most important constitutional rights for criminal defendants:
The Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This short phrase has spawned many U.S. Supreme Court cases and led to the development by that Court of technical rules of police procedure. In most cases, for instance, police must have a warrant to enter and search someone’s house or belongings. If police violate the Fourth Amendment, then any evidence they uncover as a result of that violation will be suppressed at trial, meaning the court that is trying the case won’t admit it, and the jury will never learn of it.
The Fifth Amendment
The Fifth Amendment prohibits the government from coercing a person to provide testimony that incriminates him- or herself. If you’ve ever seen a TV show about police, you’ve seen this prohibition in action. The rights read by a police officer when the officer arrests someone are called Miranda rights, after the U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona. In Miranda, the Court explained that statements made by a person in police custody cannot be admitted at trial against that person unless the police can show that they informed the person of his Miranda rights—the right to remain silent, the right to have an attorney present during the police interrogation, and that an attorney would be appointed if the person could not afford one.
The Sixth Amendment
The Sixth Amendment includes several protections for criminal defendants, including the right to a “speedy and public trial” by “an impartial jury” and to “be confronted with the witnesses against him.” The right to a speedy trial means that the government can’t keep a criminal defendant locked up indefinitely while awaiting trial. The right to an impartial jury can require a court to transfer a case to another location upon request by the defendant. And the Confrontation Clause, as it’s come to be known, guarantees that in general, a criminal defendant will have the opportunity to cross-examine anyone testifying against him or her.
The Eighth Amendment
The Eighth Amendment is more popular because of its protection for convicted criminals. It prohibits the government from imposing “cruel and unusual punishments.” But it also protects criminal defendants by forbidding “excessive bail.” The Supreme Court has explained that the ban on “excessive bail” prohibits courts from setting bail higher than it needs to be to ensure a criminal defendant appears for trial.
When you read these four amendments in the Constitution, you might not think much of them. But over the course of decades, and as developed in countless Supreme Court opinions, they have formed the foundation of American criminal procedure, and today provide robust protections for those targeted by the government for prosecution. Here is some more info on criminal defendants.