3 minute read


The Eighth Amendment Of The Constitution And Defendant Rights

The Eight Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides only that "excessive bail shall not be required," offers no guidance as to the purposes of bail and the rights of defendants at bail. According to Caleb Foote (1965), bail under English law was construed as a device allowing a defendant to gain release before trial while providing assurance of attendance at court proceedings. Denial of bail, where it occurred, was reserved for those cases in which defendants were likely to flee because they were facing the death penalty. Foote argued that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution represents an incomplete rendering of the principles of English law that gave birth to the institutions of bail and pretrial detention. Not only did English statutes enumerate the offenses under which a right to bail could be expected (it was restricted in capital cases), but the habeas corpus procedure was also a remedy for unlawful detention. In addition, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 proscribed the use of high bail as a means for securing detention. Foote reports that when these three ingredients (i.e., a specified right to bail, habeas corpus, and the excessive bail clause) were imported by the Americans, the habeas corpus remedy was incorporated under Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution, the excessive bail clause appeared in the Eighth Amendment, but a specific right to bail appeared nowhere. Thus, poorly translated from its English origins according to Foote, the Eighth Amendment contains some of the "most ambiguous language in the Bill of Rights" (1965, p. 969).

There are at least three interpretations of the "right to bail" deriving from the Eighth Amendment (Goldkamp, 1979, pp. 16–17). The first, finding no explicit reference to a right to bail in that amendment, conceives of no such right, and defers to statutory provisions to determine when bail must be set as a matter of right, and when it is discretionary. The second interpretation, in finding no explicit instruction from the Constitution or in statute, views bail as a matter of judicial discretion. The excessive bail clause, then, merely decrees that in cases in which a judge determines that bail will be set, it should not be excessive. A third interpretation finds a right to bail implicit in the Eighth Amendment and relies on a historical reading of English law for support.

This latter view, adopted by the early advocates of bail reform, is supported by the proposition that the constitutional prohibition of excessive bail can only stem from a presumption favoring the release of defendants before trial (Foote, 1965, pp. 979–981). This position assumes not only that there is a federally "guaranteed right to have bail set, but there also is a guaranteed Federal right to pretrial freedom, which may be abridged only under extreme, high-risk circumstances" (Fabricant, p. 312). Proponents of this interpretation point to language in Stack that (a) there is a presumption that defendants in all noncapital cases will be admitted to bail; and (b) that this presumption is based on the "traditional right to freedom before conviction" deriving from the presumption of innocence, as long as release is "conditioned upon the accused's giving assurance that he will stand trial and submit to punishment if found guilty" (342 U.S. 1, 4–5 (1951)).

The reasoning of Stack served as the basis for the broad principles of bail reform. Indeed, this conditional right to release is reflected in the language of the Federal Bail Reform Acts of 1966 and 1984 in two ways: (a) in the presumption favoring release of defendants on personal recognizance; and (b) in the presumption favoring release under the least restrictive conditions necessary to ensure appearance. However, the community safety aim was included in the 1984 act. It and the District of Columbia's preventive detention law specify exceptions to the release presumptions, namely, when the defendant's release cannot be "conditioned on . . . giving assurance" of compliant pretrial behavior. Indeed, the presumption in favor of release is reversed for specified categories of defendants facing serious charges and posing serious risks of flight or threat to the community or other persons. Defendants in the designated categories are presumed detained, pending a pretrial detention hearing to determine whether any "condition or combination of conditions" will ensure appearance and public safety. At that hearing, such defendants are placed in the position of having to counter the government's contention that they pose such a risk of harm or flight that they should remain in confinement.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawBail - The Purposes Of The Bail Or Pretrial Release Decision, The Eighth Amendment Of The Constitution And Defendant Rights