What Are The Most Important Constitutional Rights In Criminal Cases?

What Are "Constitutional Rights"?

Your constitutional rights are those rights that are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, and in the constitution of your state. In a criminal prosecution, your constitutional rights are your strongest protection against improper police conduct and wrongful conviction. Most constitutional rights were composed in reaction to specific abuses by British authorities during Colonial times. The rights described in the Federal Constitution must be observed by all agents of the federal government and, for the most part, by agents of the states.

The Most Important Federal Constitutional Rights in Criminal Proceedings

The most important rights of criminal defendants, as protected by the U.S. Constitution, are set forth in the following provisions:

Article 1, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution

No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.

Under this provision forbids,

  • Ex Post Facto Laws - The constitutional protection against ex post facto laws prevents the state from passing a law after a person has committed an act, and then prosecuting the person for the prior act. You may only be prosecuted under the laws that are in effect at the time of your act.

  • Bills of Attainder - The protection against bills of attainder prevents the State from passing a law meant to punish a specific individual, usually without judicial process. That is, the state is prohibited from passing a law that declares a specific individual or group of people guilty of an offense and imposes a punishment upon them, with or without a trial. A criminal law should target a specific behavior that the legislature intends to outlaw, not an individual or group.

Fourth Amendment Rights

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment provides general protections against arbitrary search and seizure of persons and property, including a general requirement that an agent of the state must obtain a search warrant before searching a person or their property.

  • Unreasonable Search and Seizure - The Fourth Amendment protects against arbitrary searches, and provides the foundation for the potential suppression (exclusion) of improperly seized evidence from use in a criminal prosecution.

  • Warrant Requirement - Absent compelling circumstances, the police are required to obtain a search warrant to be issued by a neutral magistrate upon a showing of probable cause, before searching a person, their property or their home.

Although there are many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment "warrant requirement," it provides broad protection of the general public from inappropriate police conduct.

Fifth Amendment Rights

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment provides a number of important legal protections that are now often taken for granted.

  • Double Jeopardy - The protection against double jeopardy prohibits the state from trying a defendant more than once for the same offense. Although retrial may be possible following a mistrial or remand from a successful appeal, the state may not retry a defendant who has been acquitted of the offense, or whose case is dismissed for reasons other than his own misconduct after a jury is empaneled and sworn in, or after the judge started to hear evidence in a bench trial.

  • The Right to Remain Silent - The right to remain silent comes from a defendant's Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to be a witness against himself

  • Due Process of Law - Due process rights include an enormous array of procedural protections that are intended to help ensure a fair trial.

  • Miranda Rights - A criminal suspect's right to receive a Miranda warning prior to custodial interrogation, describing the right to remain silent, that statements given may be used against the defendant, and of the right to counsel, is required under the Fifth Amendment.

Sixth Amendment Rights

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Among the important rights of criminal defendants that are protected by the Sixth Amendment, are:

  • Jury Trial - The right to trial by jury.

  • Disclosure of Charges - A defendant's right to be informed of the nature of the charges that have been filed against him by the state and of their potential punishments.

  • The Right to Counsel - The right to be represented by a lawyer, as well as the right of indigent defendants to court-appointed lawyers in criminal cases.

  • Confrontation of Witnesses - The right to compel witnesses to appear at trial, the right to confront (question and cross-examine) witnesses at trial, and the right to receive help from the state to locate missing witnesses and ensure that they appear at trial.

  • Speedy Trial - Protection against undue delay in the trial of a suspect, a right that is most important for defendants who are being detained by the state prior to trial. Although a defendant may waive his speedy trial rights, this right prevents the state from incarcerating defendants for years while their trials are perpetually delayed.

Eighth Amendment Rights

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits:

  • Excessive Bail - The imposition of excessive bail, an amount unreasonably in excess of bail that would reasonably assure the defendant's appearance at trial, in federal prosecutions.

  • Excessive Fines - Financial penalties that are not reasonable for the criminal charge or under the facts of the cse.

  • Cruel and Unusual Punishments - The protection against being punished for a crime with a penalty that is severely degrading to human dignity, inflicted in a wholly arbitrary fashion, that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society, or that is wholly unnecessary.

Fourteenth Amendment Rights

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Fourteenth Amendment provides the foundation for the expansion of federal constitutional protections to defendants in state courts.

  • Equal Protection - The first Section of the Fourteenth Amendment's requires that all citizens be granted equal protection of the laws. Under that provision, neither state governments nor the federal government may deprive an individual or class of people of the rights enjoyed by other persons who are similarly situated.

  • Privileges and Immunities - The Privileges and Immunities Clause prohibits the states from treating the citizens of different states in a discriminatory manner, and similarly prohibits the federal government from giving different treatment to the citizens of different states.

  • Due Process - The Fourteenth Amendment expressly extends the constitution's Due Process rights to state prosecutions, and it is through this clause that the majority of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights have been incorporated to the States.

What Federal Constitutional Rights Must States Observe

The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Most of the rights provided to criminal defendants by the Bill of Rights have been "incorporated" to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, meaning that those rights apply in both state and federal prosecutions. The only exceptions are:

  • The Fifth Amendment right to indictment by grand jury; and

  • The Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail.

All other rights apply to both state and federal prosecutions.

Do You Get Additional Rights From Your State Constitutions

For the most part, the rights described in state constitutions resemble those described in the U.S. Constitution. With the exception of excessive bail and indictment by grand jury, in which states may follow their own laws, no state may extend to a defendant less protection than that which is required by the U.S. Constitution. However, a state may offer greater protections to its citizens than those that are required by the U.S. Constitution.

To put it another way, states may only add to your federal constitutional rights. They may not pass laws or constitutional amendments that restrict the rights that are protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Many state constitutions include provisions that offer broader protections than the U.S. Constitution. For example, some states hold that their residents have an "expectation of privacy" in their garbage, meaning that the government must have probable cause to search garbage. Some states hold that traffic "check lanes," where entire lanes of drivers are stopped and checked by the police, are unconstitutional. The United States Supreme Court has held that the U.S. Constitution does not recognize an expectation of privacy in garbage, and that traffic check lanes are constitutionally permissible, but states may impose those higher requirements on state court prosecutions.

Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Aug 1, 2016.