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Criminal Procedure

Four Constitutional Cornerstones

Much of contemporary understanding with regard to criminal procedure arises from interpretations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments--adopted along with seven others as part of the ten-amendment Bill of Rights in 1791--as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 as a means of securing rights for former slaves freed during the Civil War.

The Fourth Amendment addresses the issue of search and seizure, and limits the power of the government to search the property of an individual--whether that property is a house, papers, effects, or the citizen's own body--without "probable cause." The latter term has undergone varying interpretations, but can be explained in common-sense terms as a reasonable expectation that some form of crime has been committed. For example, if neighbors report that they have heard the sound of machine-gun fire coming from a particular individual's dwelling, the police have probable cause to search the premises for illegal weapons and, given that such weapons are illegal, to seize them. They do not, however, have the power to search for items not specified in the warrant (e.g., to look for illegal drugs if the warrant is for weapons), or to search parts of the individual's property other than those defined in the warrant. This derives from the guidelines for warrants provided in the amendment: they must be "supported by Oath or affirmation," and must "particularly [describe] the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The Fifth Amendment contains several guarantees of rights important in the system of criminal procedure, the most well-known of which is the right against making self-incriminating statements. This means that a suspect charged with a crime is not required to act as a witness against himself, or to provide any information which would lead to his conviction; rather, the burden of proof is on the government.

As for the Sixth Amendment, it guarantees the individual's rights in the courtroom, rights which include a speedy and public trial, an impartial jury, and confrontation by witnesses against the individual (i.e., someone cannot make an accusation without formally presenting themselves as a witness in a courtroom). The individual is also guaranteed the right to "[obtain] witnesses in his favor," as well as the right to legal counsel. In a case where a defendant cannot afford an attorney's fees, the court will appoint a defense lawyer whose fees will be paid by the public. Such was the situation, for instance, in the famous Oklahoma City bombing trial, United States v. McVeigh (1997), when accused bomber Timothy McVeigh was granted the services of Stephen Jones, a court-appointed lawyer. Whereas the right to defend oneself is embodied in the Sixth Amendment, however, the right to a court-appointed defense in the absence of other means has only arisen through subsequent interpretation of the amendment.

Likewise the Fourteenth Amendment represents a progressive development of ideas contained in the Fifth. Though the language and the immediate purposes of the two amendments differ greatly, both contain a key phrase: "due process of law." These four words are at the bedrock of America's legal tradition, and whereas the Fifth Amendment guarantees individuals' right to due process with regard to federal proceedings, the Fourteenth Amendment does the same with regard to state proceedings. Because the majority of all legal action takes place at the state or local level, this expansion of constitutional safeguards was one of the most pivotal events in American legal history.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesCriminal Procedure - Contrasting Perspectives On The Legal System, Four Constitutional Cornerstones, Habeas Corpus And Other Guarantees, From Probable Cause To Appeal: The Criminal Procedure Cycle