The Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties

How are your rights defined and protected under the Constitution?

5.5 Your Rights in the Legal System

The next four amendments-the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth-concern the protection of rights in the judicial process. These amendments were designed to ensure that the justice system neither abused fundamental liberties nor punished innocent people under the pretext of preserving law and order.

The Fifth Amendment: Your Rights When Accused of a Crime

If you have ever seen an arrest depicted on television, you have probably heard the words, "You have the right to remain silent." These words are based on the Fifth Amendment, which protects individuals from self-incrimination, or saying anything that might imply their own guilt.

This ban on self-incrimination was meant to prevent law enforcement officials from pressuring suspects into admitting guilt for a crime they did not commit. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court set forth a procedure for ensuring that suspects know their rights. Chief Justice Earl Warren described this procedure in his written opinion:

Prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney.

These rights of the accused became known as Miranda rights.

The Fifth Amendment protects other rights as well. It says that no one shall be subjected to double jeopardy. This means that if a person is tried for a crime and found not guilty, prosecutors cannot try that person again for the same crime. It also states that no one may be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This protection, known as the Due Process Clause, also appears in the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fifth Amendment also contains the Takings Clause. It says that the government may not take private property for public use "without just compensation." Government may exercise a power known as eminent domain to secure private property for a public purpose, such as the construction of a road. But it must pay a fair price for the property.

The Sixth and Seventh Amendments: Your Right to a Fair Trial

The Sixth Amendment explains how criminal trials should be conducted to protect the rights of the accused. The Seventh Amendment guarantees trial by jury in most civil lawsuits. Civil cases are those that do not involve criminal matters.

The Sixth Amendment says that criminal trials must be carried out quickly, publicly, and in front of an impartial jury. The defendant has the right to legal counsel and to see all the evidence used in the trial.

The right to legal counsel was the focus of the 1963 Court case of Gideon v. Wainwright. Clarence Earl Gideon was a poor, uneducated ex-convict who was arrested for theft in Florida. Unable to afford an attorney, he asked the court to provide him free legal counsel. Because Florida courts provided such services only in death penalty cases, the judge turned him down. Gideon was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.

While in prison, Gideon educated himself on his legal rights and filed an appeal that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. There the justices sided with Gideon, arguing that the Sixth Amendment guarantee of legal counsel should not depend on the defendant's ability to pay. Gideon was appointed a lawyer and had his case retried. This time, he was found not guilty. Today anyone facing charges who cannot afford an attorney can have one appointed at the government's expense.

At times, a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights may come into conflict with other rights and liberties. For example, freedom of the press is a key civil liberty, and the news media have a right to cover public trials. But if this coverage affects a trial's outcome, the accused may be denied due process of law. This was the issue before the Court in the case of Sheppard v. Maxwell.

On July 4,1954, Sam Sheppard's wife was murdered at the couple's home near Cleveland, Ohio. Sheppard claimed that an armed intruder had knocked him unconscious and then killed his wife. Nonetheless, he was charged with the crime and found guilty. Throughout the trial, the Cleveland press covered the story relentlessly, often in a manner that implied Sheppard's guilt.

Sheppard appealed his conviction while in prison, arguing that biased press coverage had prevented him from getting a fair trial. After hearing the case in 1966, the Court overturned the murder conviction, agreeing that coverage of the trial had "inflamed and prejudiced the public." Sheppard was retried in the lower court and found not guilty.

Although the Court acknowledged the media's First Amendment rights in Sheppard v. Maxwell, it said that press coverage should not be allowed to interfere with a defendant's right to due process. In cases where intense media coverage might unfairly influence a trial, the trial should be moved to another location or the jury should be isolated from all news coverage.

The Eighth Amendment: Your Protection from Excessive Bail and Punishments

The Eighth Amendment protects people in the criminal justice system from excessive bail, fines, or cruel and unusual punishments. Bail is money given over to the court in exchange for a suspect's release until his or her trial begins.

Most of the legal challenges to this amendment have involved the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has acknowledged that beliefs of what is "cruel and unusual" may change over time. For example, when the amendment was written, public whipping was a common punishment. Today such a punishment would be considered cruel and unusual.

Some Americans today hold that capital punishment, or the death penalty, is also a cruel and unusual punishment. However, most death penalty cases have focused on the method of execution, such as hanging, not on the death sentence itself. In the 1890 case of In re Kemmler, the Court said that any method of execution is acceptable, as long as it does not involve "torture or lingering death."

In the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, however, the Court focused on the death penalty itself. It concluded that capital punishment was cruel and unusual when it was inconsistently and unequally applied from one case to another. The Court observed that all too often, two people convicted of a capital crime received very different penalties. One might be sentenced to life in prison while the other was condemned to death.

The Court's decision in Furman v, Georgia halted all executions in the United States. Convicts on death row received reprieves, In most cases, their death sentences were converted to life in prison.

By 1976, many states had altered their laws so that capital punishment was applied more consistently. That year, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court concluded that the death penalty was constitutional under the new laws. Most states reinstated capital punishment as a sentencing option, Still, limits on capital punishment exist Juveniles and mentally retarded persons, for example, may not be executed.

Next Section: 5.6 (Rights and Powers of the States and the People)