Chapter Fifteen Section Three
The American Legal System
Legal Protections in the Constitution
When a new nation begins, where do they draw their legal foundations from? Do they decide to develop brand new ideas and concepts or resort to tried and true practices? The American colonial lawyers relied on English law books, and judges used English common law as the basis for their decisions. American law would become a law of written statutes, which are the work of Congress and the state legislatures. This legislation replaced common law, but courts still refer to common-law principles when no statutes exist to deal with a given legal issue.
The United States Constitution is the basic law of the land. If gives each branch of government a role in making, enforcing, and interpreting the law. The legislative branch of government makes most laws. The executive branch carries out these laws and, in doing so, makes laws as well. The judicial branch also sets laws by interpreting laws. Courts base their rulings on written laws and the precedents of earlier cases. These rulings are then used to build decisions about similar cases in the future. This process is known as stare decisis, which is Latin for “let the decision stand.”
Article I of the Constitution includes several basic legal rights for Americans. One of the most important may be the writ of habeas corpus. A writ is a written legal order; habeas corpus is a Latin phrase meaning “produce the body.” The writ of habeas corpus requires an official who has arrested someone to bring that person to court and explain why he or she is being held. The officials holding the person must show good reasons for not releasing the person. This is a safeguard against being kept in jail unlawfully.
Article I also forbids creating bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. A bill of attainder is a law punishing a person accused of a crime without a trial or a fair hearing in court. An ex post facto law is a law that would allow someone to be punished for an action that was not illegal when it happened. An example would be arresting a man for driving without wearing a seatbelt during the time before it had been made against the law.
The Constitution’s first 10 amendments-the Bill of Rights-further guarantee the freedoms of individuals. Several of these spell out the rights of Americans in relation to law enforcement and the administration of justice. After the Civil War, Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, providing these rights to formerly enslaved persons.
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee due process of law. That means that government may not take our lives, liberty, or property except according to the proper exercise of law. The law requires, for example, that accused people have the opportunity for a trial by jury and for questioning witnesses against them.
The Constitution defines only one crime, the crime of treason. Article III says that people can be convicted of treason only if they wage war against the United States, join its enemies, or give aid and comfort to the enemy. No one can be convicted of treason without proof. Treason is defined so that the government cannot misuse the law to punish people for political acts. In some countries, criticizing the government is considered treason.
Rights of People Accused of Crimes
Several parts of the Bill of Rights protect citizens accused of crimes. These rights ensure that accused people are treated fairly and receive every chance to defend themselves. Each of these rights is based on the idea that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The burden of proving an accusation against a defendant falls on the prosecution. The defendant does not have to prove his or her innocence.
Fourth Amendment: Search and Seizure
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” It gives Americans a fundamental right to be secure in their homes and property. Police seeking to intrude on this security must first get a search warrant-a judge’s authorization specifying the exact place to be searched and describing what objects may be seized. A judge may issue a search warrant if the police can show that they have probable cause-a good reason to believe that a wanted person is hiding in that place or that goods or evidence are housed there.
In the 1961 case Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court adopted what is called the exclusionary rule. This rule says that if the police gain evidence in a way that violates the Fourth Amendment, that evidence cannot be used in a trial.
Fifth Amendment: Self-Incrimination, Double Jeopardy, and Grand Juries
The Fifth Amendment states that people may not be required to incriminate themselves-to say anything that might show them to be guilty of a crime. Sometimes when being questioned, a person may say, “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may tend to incriminate me.” This is known as “taking the Fifth.” Before the 1960s, police often questioned suspects, sometimes under great pressure, to push them to confess to a crime before they say a lawyer or appeared in court. In 1966 the Supreme Court held, in Miranda v. Arizona, that police must inform suspects that they have the right to “remain silent”-to refuse to answer police questions. However, if this right is misused-such as if a person is using it to protect another person-the judge may hold the person in contempt of court. This means that the judge believes the person is obstructing or interfering with the judicial process, and that person could be jailed.
The Fifth Amendment also bans double jeopardy. This means that a person who is tried for a crime and found not guilty may not be placed in jeopardy-put at risk of criminal penalty-a second time by being retried for the same crime.
The Fifth Amendment says, furthermore, that people accused of serious federal crimes must be brought before a grand jury to decide whether the government has enough evidence to bring them to trial. In some states, a preliminary hearing is used instead of a grand jury indictment. A grand jury is a group of 12 to 23 citizens that hears evidence presented by a prosecutor. The grand jury decides whether there is enough evidence to indicate that the accused person has committed the crime. If the grand jury finds sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, it indicts the accused person, or issues a formal charge that names the suspect and states the charges against him or her.
Sixth Amendment: Legal Counsel and Trials
The Sixth Amendment says that an accused person has the right to be defended by a lawyer. In 1963 the Supreme Court in Gideon V. Wainwright interpreted the amendment to mean that if a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the state must provide one. Previously the federal government provided lawyers for poor defendants, but some stated did not. In the court case used by the Supreme Court, Clarence Gideon was arrested in Florida and the state did not provide a lawyer, causing Gideon to be convicted because of his poor representation of himself during the trial.
The Sixth Amendment also guarantees that accused people must be informed of the nature and cause of the accusations against them and have “the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” and the right to confront, or question, witnesses against them. Most state and federal courts require the government to bring an accused person to trial within about 100 days. This protects defendants from being held in jail for an unreasonably long time. It also means that trials usually may not be closed to the public or the news media.
A person accused of a crime also has the right to a trial by an impartial jury. Impartial means that jury members will be people who do not know anyone involved in the case and have not already made up their minds about the case. Jury members usually must be drawn from the area where the crime was committed.
In federal courts, all trial juries, called petit juries, have 12 people, and they must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict or acquit. Several states have juries with as few as six people. Some states allow 12-member juries to reach a verdict if 10 jurors agree. When juries as small as six are used, verdicts must be unanimous.
Although everyone charged with a crime has a right to a jury trial, defendants may choose to appear only before a judge, without a jury. This kind of trial is called a bench trial. A person might request a bench trial to avoid the long and drawnout process and expense of a jury trial. Even so, many criminal prosecutions do not come to trial at all, with or without a jury, because of plea bargains. Plea bargaining is a negotiation between the defense attorney and the prosecutor, who is the government’s attorney. In a plea bargain, the government offers the defendant a chance to plead guilty to a less serious crime in exchange for receiving a less severe penalty. A judge must agree to any bargain reached. People often agree to plea bargains to cut down on the expense and time of a trial or to get a lighter sentence if they fear conviction. Judges often agree to plea bargains as a way to handle the tremendous volume of criminal cases that courts must process every year.
Eighth Amendment: Punishment and Bail
This amendment outlaws “cruel and unusual punishments.” Torture, for example, would be cruel. Also, a punishment may not be out of proportion to the crime, such as imposing the death penalty for robbery. There is controversy over how this protection relates to the death penalty. In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty as then administered was not constitutional. The Court found that the death penalty was being imposed in unfair ways, for a wide variety of crimes, and mainly on African Americans and poor people. This decision did not outlaw the death penalty. In response to this decision, about three-fourths of the states revised their death penalty laws to comply with guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. Some states have established a two-stage process to deal with death penalty cases. First, a jury trial determines the guilt or innocence of a defendant. Then a separate hearing is held to determine the degree of punishment.
The Eighth Amendment also prohibits “excessive bail.” Bail is a sum of money an arrested person pays to a court to win release from jail while awaiting going to trial. The purpose of requiring this payment is to guarantee that the person will voluntarily return for the actual trial. After the trial, the person gets back the money. Courts may not set bail so high that a person is forced unnecessarily and unfairly forced to stay in jail. An example would be a judge setting bail at $500,000 for a motorist accused of running a red light.
If a person is accused of a serious crime, the judge may set a very high bail. In case of an extremely serious criminal action such as murder, or if the arrested person seems highly likely to flee or be a danger to the community, the judge may deny bail altogether, and the defendant is remanded, or returned to custody until the trial. On the other hand, sometimes a judge will require no bail at all, releasing a person on his or her own recognizance, or simple promise to return.
Our Legal Responsibilities
The Declaration of Independence stated, “all men are created equal.” This does not mean that everyone is born with the same characteristics. This democratic ideal of equality means that all people are entitled to equal rights and treatment before the law. Americans have a number of legal responsibilities. By fulfilling them, we ensure that our legal system works as it should and that our legal rights are protected. Serving on a jury and testifying in court are both important responsibilities. The legal right to a jury trial can only be effective if people are willing to serve on juries and appear in court.
Other responsibilities include obeying laws and cooperating with law enforcement officials. A government’s ability to enforce a law depends to a great extent on people’s willingness to obey it. The effectiveness of law enforcement officials often depends on people’s willingness to become involved and tell what they know about a crime.
Americans must work peacefully to change unfair, outdated laws. This might involve gathering voter’s signatures on petitions to place an issue on a ballot for a vote or asking legislators to change the law.