Criminal Law and Procedure (Supreme Court Drama)
The American criminal justice system has two legal parts: law and procedure. Criminal law defines crime and punishment. It protects society by discouraging harmful conduct and punishing wrongdoers. Criminal procedure controls the process of investigating crime, arresting a suspected criminal, and convicting him in a court of law. Criminal procedure protects the rights of the accused, whether guilty or innocent.
Criminal law in the United States has its roots in Great Britain. When the United States was born in 1776, criminal law in England existed in the common law. Under common law, judges developed definitions for crimes on a case-by-case basis. Criminal law in the United States originally came from the common law. Today the federal government and most states have statutes that define crime and punishment. Many of these definitions, however, come from the common law.
Under federal law and that of most states, crimes are categorized as felonies, misdemeanors, and petty offenses. A felony is a crime, such as murder, that is punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year. Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, punishable by imprisonment for up to one year, a monetary fine, or both. Petty offenses are punishable by imprisonment for less than six months, a small fine, or both. Infractions, such as minor traffic and parking violations, are punishable only by a fine and are not considered crimes.
Most crimes are against either people or property. Crimes against people include murder, assault, battery, rape, and kidnapping. Crimes against property include arson, trespass, and burglary. The definitions for most crimes include both a bad act and a guilty mind. The bad act requirement makes sure people are not punished just for bad thoughts. The guilty mind requirement makes sure people are not punished when they do something bad accidentally. A person must intend to do something wrong to be guilty of a crime.
People charged with crimes can use many defenses to avoid being convicted and punished. Capacity defenses are for people who did not have the ability to control their behavior. Capacity defenses include insanity, infancy, and intoxication. Defenses such as duress, coercion, and necessity are for people who were forced to commit a crime. Entrapment is a defense for people whom the government tricks into committing a crime. Self defense is for people who respond to an attack with the force necessary to stop it and end up hurting or killing their attacker.
The U.S. Constitution says "No . . . ex post facto Law shall be passed." An ex post facto (after the fact) law makes a crime out of something a person did when it was not a crime. For example, imagine that it was legal in 1999 to protest outside an abortion clinic. If a state passed a law in 2000 that made it a crime to have protested outside abortion clinics in 1999, the law would be ex post facto and invalid under the Constitution.
Criminal Procedure Before Trial
Criminal procedure controls the process of investigating crime and convicting criminals. Supreme Court cases deal with criminal procedure more than criminal law. That is because the U.S. Constitution contains many provisions that make up the law of criminal procedure. The most general provision says "No Bill of Attainder . . . shall be passed." A bill of attainder is a law that convicts and punishes a person without a trial. The framers of the Constitution wanted to assure that people could only be convicted of crimes after fair, individual trials.
Criminal procedure, however, protects Americans well before a trial begins. When the police investigate a crime, the Fourth Amendment limits their investigation. Police may not search a private place without a warrant and probable cause. Probable cause means good reason to believe the place has evidence to be seized or criminals to be arrested. The Fourth Amendment also requires the police to have a warrant to arrest a criminal suspect.
There are exceptions to these rules. The police may arrest a person without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe she has committed a felony. Because felons can be dangerous to society, arresting them quickly is more important than making the police get a warrant. The police also may arrest a person without a warrant when he commits a crime in the officer's presence.
When the police arrest a suspect, the Fifth and Sixth Amendments protect the suspect's rights. One of those is the right not to be a witness against oneself. This is called the right against self-incrimination. It prevents the government from forcing a suspect to talk about a crime, make a confession, or share any evidence that could be used against him.
The Sixth Amendment gives all suspects the right to have an attorney. If the suspect cannot afford an attorney, the government must pay one to defend him. The suspect is allowed to have the attorney present during all police questioning. The attorney also must be allowed to watch if the police conduct a line-up. A line-up is when the suspect stands among a group of people to see if the victim can identify him. The suspect's attorney is allowed to be there to make sure the line-up is fair.
In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the U.S. Supreme Court used the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney to create the famous warning that police officers must give when they arrest a suspect. It is called reading the suspect her rights. Police must tell the suspect she has the right to remain silent, and that anything she says will be used against her in court. The police also must tell the suspect she has the right to have an attorney, and that the government will appoint one if she cannot afford one. If the suspect says she wants to remain silent and get an attorney, the police cannot ask her any questions about the crime.
After the police arrest a suspect, the court conducts a preliminary hearing. There the government presents its evidence to a magistrate to show that it has probable cause to believe the defendant has committed a crime. It the magistrate agrees, she requires the suspect to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the plea is guilty, the case goes right to the sentencing phase. If the plea is not guilty, the magistrate sets bail. Bail is an amount of money the defendant needs to pay the court to be released while waiting for a trial. The Eighth Amendment says bail may not be too high. If the defendant pays his bail and shows up for trial, he gets his money back. If he fails to show up for trial, he forfeits the money and the court issues a warrant for his arrest.
Before there is a trial in federal court for serious crimes, the Fifth Amendment requires a grand jury to indict the defendant. A grand jury is a large group of citizens, usually as many as twenty-three, that reviews the government's case to make sure it has enough evidence to charge the defendant with a crime. If the grand jury hands down an indictment, the defendant faces a trial on criminal charges.
Criminal Procedure During Trial
The Sixth Amendment gives the defendant many rights during a criminal trial. The defendant has a right to know the charges against him. The right to have an attorney continues through the trial. The trial must involve an impartial jury that determines whether or not the defendant is guilty. The Sixth Amendment says the trial must be speedy and open to the public.
The Sixth Amendment gives the defendant the right to see witnesses against him. In other words, witnesses must face the defendant when they testify against him. They cannot give their testimony in private. Courts sometimes make an exception when the witness is a young child whom the defendant is charged with sexually abusing. In any case, the defendant has a right to cross-examine all witnesses to challenge their testimony.
The defendant has the right to force witnesses in her favor to testify in court. The court accomplishes this with a subpoena (pronounced SUH-PEE-NUH), a document that orders the witness to appear in court to give testimony. The government also must give the defendant any evidence it has that suggests she is innocent. The defendant, however, need not share evidence that suggests he is guilty. In fact, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination prevents the government from forcing the defendant to testify at all. The defendant cannot lie, but she can choose not to answer the government's questions.
The burden of proof is an important part of American criminal procedure. The burden of proof says a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The government has the burden of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That does not mean there must be no doubt about the defendant's guilt. It means the government must present enough evidence of guilt so that no reasonable person would have any doubt that the defendant is guilty.
Criminal Procedure After Trial
If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the defendant receives a punishment, called a sentence. The judge usually determines the sentence. Sometimes the jury does so when it determines guilt. Sentences can include imprisonment, a fine, community service, and probation. Probation happens when the court allows the defendant to go free with orders to follow certain rules and obey all laws. If the defendant violates the terms of his probation by breaking a rule or law, the court can send the defendant back to jail.
Sometimes the court holds a separate hearing to determine a sentence. That is particularly true when the defendant faces the death penalty for first degree murder. In such cases, the defendant has a right to present evidence at the sentencing hearing about his character, background, and the circumstances of the crime to convince the jury he does not deserve the death penalty.
The Eighth Amendment limits the sentence a defendant can receive. It says the government may not impose "excessive fines" or "cruel and unusual punishments." The Eighth Amendment is supposed to make sure the punishment fits the crime. Applying the Eighth Amendment, the Supreme Court eliminated the death penalty for the crime of rape. As of 2000, most states restrict the death penalty to murder cases.
Sometimes a jury convicts a defendant and sends him to jail after a trial that was unfair. In such cases, the Constitution says the defendant may use a device called a writ of habeas corpus. The writ is a lawsuit the defendant files against his jailer. To win, the defendant must prove the government convicted him by violating one or more of his constitutional rights. If the defendant succeeds, the court orders the government to set him free.
Besides habeas corpus, most defendants can challenge their convictions by filing an appeal. In the federal system and most state systems, the first appeal to a court of appeals is a statutory right. The right to have an attorney still applies at this stage. If the defendant loses on appeal, her last hope is to appeal to the state supreme court or U.S. Supreme Court. In most cases, the defendant does not have a right to file such an appeal. Instead, the supreme court must agree to hear the defendant's case. If the defendant loses all appeals, she must serve her sentence.
The Fifth Amendment contains an important protection called the Double Jeopardy Clause. It prevents the government from trying or punishing a person twice for the same crime. That means the government cannot hold another trial for burglary against the same defendant if it loses the first one. The Double Jeopardy Clause, however, does not prevent a different government from trying the defendant for the same crime. For example, if a federal court finds a defendant not guilty of murdering a federal law enforcement officer, the state in which the murder happened can hold a second murder trial.
Suggestions for further reading
Fireside, Harvey. The Fifth Amendment: The Right to Remain Silent. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Force, Eden. The Sixth Amendment. Silver Burdett Press.
Franklin, Paula A. The Fourth Amendment. Englewood Cliffs: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Galloway, John. The Supreme Court & the Rights of the Accused. New York: Facts on File, 1973.
Holmes, Burnham. The Fifth Amendment. Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Johnson, Joan. Justice. New York: Franklin Watts, 1985.
Karson, Jill, ed. Criminal Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.
Owens, Lois Smith, and Vivian Vedell Gordon. Think about Prisons and the Criminal Justice System. Walker & Co., 1992.
Wetterer, Charles M.The Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.