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United States v. Salerno

Rights Of The Community V. Rights Of The Individual

The government petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which began hearing the case on 21 January 1987. At stake in the case was whether people could lose some of their constitutionally granted rights if they were repeat offenders or posed a potential danger to society. While reviewing the decision of the court of appeals, the Supreme Court majority noticed a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Bail Reform Act as well as the amendments in question in the previous trials and in the respondents' view. The act called not for the indiscriminate application of its policies, but for the application in very specific circumstances where the accused committed extremely serious felonies, following a specific set of procedures by the government and by the accused.

Hence, by a 6-3 vote the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling. Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the opinion that the Bail of Reform Act of 1984 did not violate the constitutional rights of the accused under the bail provision of the Eighth Amendment and Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, providing the federal government could clearly demonstrate the likely danger posed by the accused. He contended that the act is "regulatory in nature, and does not constitute punishment before trial," as the respondents and others argued.

The Court believed that the respondents failed in their attempt to demonstrate the Bail Reform Act amounted to punishment before trial and to excessive bail. The Supreme Court viewed the pretrial detention as a method of controlling crime, not as punishment, reasoning that holding someone before trial does not necessarily constitute punishment in any straightforward way. Moreover, Chief Justice Rehnquist showed that the Constitution does permit denial of certain rights in special circumstances, as in times of war when the government can hold people considered dangerous. In addition, the Supreme Court already gave lower federal courts this power for holding juvenile offenders if they posed a demonstrable risk to society in Schall v. Martin (1984). In such cases, the rights of society outweigh the rights of the individual. Chief Justice Rehnquist concluded that since the Court previously upheld these kinds of exceptions to individual rights, the Bail Reform Act in no way violated the tenor of the Constitution given the carefully delineated policies and procedures of the act.

The Court also found no evidence to support the respondents' second claim: that the Bail Reform Act violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on excessive bail. Though the respondents reasoned that denial of bail equaled setting bail at an infinitely high level even when there was no apparent risk of flight, the Court held that this clause does not guarantee bail in all cases. Instead it states that when there is bail, the court may not set it at an unreasonable amount. Again, the Court noted numerous circumstances when courts can deny bail such as in capital offense and deportation trials. "On the other side of the scale, of course, is the individual's strong interest in liberty. We do not minimize the importance and fundamental nature of this right. But, as our cases hold, this right may, in circumstances where the government's interest is sufficiently weighty, be subordinated to the greater needs of society."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988United States v. Salerno - Significance, Background, Rights Of The Community V. Rights Of The Individual, Further Resistance To The Bail Reform Act