Criminal Procedure and the United States Constitution

The Constitution of the United States of America in the collection of fundamental laws that control the work of the government and outline the responsibilities of its legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The United States constitution also establishes the basic rules regarding the law of criminal procedure in order to ensure that all stages of the investigation process are conducted without prejudice.

The United States constitution consists of 27 amendments, the content of which varies from laws regarding basic human rights to more specific laws which reinforce principles of federalism and criminal justice. As the supreme law of the United States, the constitution contains several fundamental principles regarding criminal procedure, a concept which describes the broad set of rules which affect the processing of a criminal case, from apprehending suspects to convicting criminals (Ingram, 2008).

These principles are somewhat vague in meaning, which led to the establishment of the Supreme Court as the highest authority which can interpret the meaning of constitutional rights and principles, and enforce this interpretation onto lower courts. In the aftermath of Marbury v. Madison Supreme Court case, it was established that in those cases when a law or regulation is found to be in conflict with principles outlined in the constitution, such law or regulation was deemed unconstitutional and therefore, invalid (Marbury v. Madison, n.d.).

In the context of criminal procedure, it means that state and federal laws can expand upon the principles of criminal procedure outlined in the United States constitution and provide additional specific regulations. However, these regulations cannot be in conflict with those principles, which are outlined in the United States constitution. In the aftermath of several pivotal Supreme Court cases in the second half of the 20th century, today most of the principles outlined in the constitution apply to state and federal laws, too.

The body of the constitution includes two main criminal procedure principles, namely the right of the United States citizens to protest if accused by the government, and the right to stand trial by jury. However, the majority of rights regarding the law of criminal procedure are outlined in the amendments known as the Bill of Rights. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments outline provisions regarding the law of criminal procedure. All of the principles outlined in these amendments aim to safeguard the rights of people who are either suspected of convicted of a crime.

The Fourth Amendment establishes the right of the United States citizens to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures (The Constitution of the United States, amend. IV). The ambiguity as to what consider “unreasonable” led to the creation of additional regulations based on the Supreme Court interpretation of this principle. These regulations cover the application of search warrants and stop and frisk and are based on the Supreme Court decision in two appellate cases, Terry v. Ohio and Mapp v. Ohio. In Terry v. Ohio, several individuals were charged with carrying concealed weapons after a police officer had performed a surface search of their clothing on the grounds of their suspicious behavior (Terry v. Ohio, n.d., par. 5).

The defense argued that the search was a violation of The Fourth Amendment; however, the Supreme Court decided that the search can be performed without a warrant if it is prompted by suspicious behavior (Terry v. Ohio, n.d., par. 5). In Mapp v. Ohio case, Dollree Mapp’s house was searched by law enforcement personnel without a warrant due to the suspicion that a bombing suspect was inside (Mapp v. Ohio (1961), n.d., par. 2). The suspicion turned out to be false; however, police found sexually explicit materials in her home and convicted her for violating state law. Ohio state law at the time made the possession of sexually explicit material illegal (Mapp v. Ohio (1961), n.d., par. 2).

Mapp appealed her conviction due to the fact that she had her rights to possess the materials are established by the First Amendment (Mapp v. Ohio (1961), n.d., par. 3). The Supreme Court ruled her innocent on other grounds, due to the fact that her house was searched without a warrant (Mapp v. Ohio (1961), n.d., par. 3). As a result, today the evidence gathered in violation of the United States constitution it is considered inadmissible nationwide. This fact strengthens the judicial system because it prohibits searching homes of innocent people.

The Fifth Amendment oversees such procedural concerns, as the role of a Grand Jury, the prohibition of double jeopardy, and establishes the right of an individual not to witness against oneself (The Constitution of the United States, amend. VI). The Fifth, as well as The Fourteenth Amendments of the United States constitution, establish procedural due process, a doctrine which requires law enforcement personnel to follow established procedures while administering justice (Glicksman & Levy, 2010, p. 657).

The concept of procedural due process implies that citizens of the United States are protected from the deprivation of “life, liberty or property without due process of law”, and should at minimum be notified of their conviction, have the right to defend themselves and be judged by a neutral party (The Constitution of the United States, amend. V). One of the pivotal appeal cases in the area of procedural due process is Miranda v. Arizona, a case in which Ernesto Miranda confessed to committing kidnapping and rape during questioning without full disclosure of his rights (Miranda v. Arizona,1966, par. 1).

Miranda argued that his statement could not be used in court because he was not informed of his rights while in police custody, which violated his right against self-incrimination. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction and decided that questioning of suspects without full disclosure of their rights is anti-constitutional and confession can only be used in trial if made up under these conditions (Miranda v. Arizona,1966, par. 2).

After this decision, several other appellant cases followed that further explained and partially altered the Supreme Court decision. However, the Supreme Court decision greatly influenced law enforcement in the United States. As the result of this decision, police officers now have to warn the convicted of their rights to remain silent as part of the criminal procedure. This warning is now known as the Miranda warning. Another case shows the Supreme Court approach towards the interpretation of “property” in this principle.

In Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, David Roth was hired as an assistant professor for one academic year with no tenure rights to continue working after that term. The university did not hire Roth for the following year and gave no explanation for the cause. Roth argued that his contract was not renewed because he voiced his critical opinion of the administration.

He claimed that his dismissal violated his rights of free speech and procedural due process. The Supreme Court decided that Roth had no “liberty” or “property” interest in the job due to the fact that he was untenured. In other words, he was not legitimately entitled to it, as if it was a property interest. The court decided that property interests “must be found in the statutory or common law of the jurisdiction.” (Procedural Due Process, n.d., par. 4).

Procedural due process strengthens the criminal justice system due to the fact that it increases the accuracy of the results of criminal investigations by enforcing fair procedures. The purpose of procedural due process is to forbid wrongful deprivation of “life, liberty or property” as well as establish safeguards to protect the rights of suspects and convicted. For instance, no one can be deprived of their property unless after a fair trial, where the convicted has a right to defend themselves and have the support of the witnesses.

Central to due process is the concept of fundamental fairness, a doctrine that applies due process to the court proceedings and guarantees. Fundamental fairness guarantees “the balance or impartiality (of a court proceeding)”, and requires the application of two basic components: notice of the charges and hearing requirement (Fundamental Fairness, n.d., par. 1). Another concept connected to procedural due process is the equal protection clause, which is included in The Fifth Amendment, and establishes the right of an individual not to witness against oneself (The Constitution of the United States, amend. V).

The Fourteenth Amendment establishes “equal protection of the laws”, which means that the United States government must equally protect civil rights of all its citizens (The Constitution of the United States, amend. XIV). It also emphasizes the need of the judicial system to be fundamentally fair and reasonable, a doctrine called “substantive due process” (Substantive due process, n.d.).

The Sixth Amendment covers those procedures, which are to be performed at trial. This amendment stresses the right of the accused to be judged by an impartial jury at “a speedy and public trial”, where they are to be defended by the Assistance of Counsel (The Constitution of the United States, amend. VI). The trial is to take place in the same state where the crime was supposedly committed, and the accused has the right to meet all the prosecution witnesses (The Constitution of the United States, amend. VI).

In addition, The Sixth Amendment establishes the need of the accused to know what crime are they accused of. Not adhering to these procedures is likely to lead to the reversal of a conviction in the subsequent appeal case. As with the other amendments, there are nuances to the procedures outlined in The Sixth Amendment. For instance, if a criminal defendant is not charged with felony and the imprisonment cannot be the outcome of the trial, the right to have an attorney becomes null. At the same time, the defendant cannot be imprisoned if they are not represented by counsel.

The attorney is typically appointed in those cases when the indigent cannot pay for the attorney themselves. The right to counsel implies that the attorney is to consult with the defendant about the trial in the best interest of the defendant, and only if this is the case their assistance is considered effective. Although it is in the best interest of the defendant to be consulted regarding the possibility of appeal, the consultation takes place in those cases when the defendant expresses his wish to appeal.

The Eight Amendment prohibits excessive fines, bail, and establishes that “no cruel and unusual punishments” are to be inflicted upon the defendant (The Constitution of the United States, amend. VIII). There is some ambiguity in the phrase “cruel and unusual punishments”, but it can be interpreted as the need of the punishment to be fit for the crime committed. This amendment is often mentioned in the context of the capital punishment, and the Supreme Court does not interpret capital punishment as inherently cruel.

Rather, the Supreme Court interprets it as the most extreme form of punishment that is to be applied in the gravest crimes, such as murder. These crimes were defined by the Supreme Court following Furman v. Georgia case, when the Supreme Court ruled that the application of capital punishment requires guidelines which should objectively define when the death penalty is applicable (Furman v. Georgia, n.d., par. 1). In the aftermath of the court ruling, statutes for capital offenses were changed in order to establish consistency and avoid discriminatory application of death penalty. Today in the United States modern ways of authorized killing, such as lethal injection, are not seen to be in conflict with the text of the constitution.

Citizens of the United States have a number of rights, and principles outlined in the United States constitution ensure that these rights are protected in the context of criminal procedure. As a democratic society, the United States relies on the rule of law to establish justice and protect human right. At the same time, in order to ensure that these rights are protected, it is important to consider the exact circumstances when determining what minimal process is due. This means that in certain cases, specific rights should be revoked in order to uphold justice.

An example of this is the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. Although it is necessary to uphold this right for privacy reasons in the majority of cases, sometimes it should be revoked to provide justice according to law. An example of such case is when a police officer has a strong suspicion that an individual is hiding crime evidence in their car. In such cases, although the reason is not formally expressed in the form of a warrant, a search of a car should be done on probable cause in spite of the principle outlined in the Fourth Amendment. The same rule applies for stop and frisk, which helps to maintain order and prevent crimes. In other words, it is important to balance individual rights and rights of the many when evaluating how much process is due.

In order to ensure that the justice is delivered without prejudice, it is important to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect people’s basic rights. The laws included in the United States constitution act as a supporting mechanism which helps establish a democratic society by establishing fundamental human rights and regulating the process of criminal procedure.


Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth. (n.d.)

Fundamental Fairness. (n.d.)

Furman v. Georgia. (n.d.)

Glicksman, R., Levy, R. (2010). Administrative Law: Agency Action in Legal Context. Eagan: Foundation Press.

Ingram, J. (2008). Criminal Procedure: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition). New York: Pearson Education.

Mapp v. Ohio (1961). (n.d.)

Marbury v. Madison. (n.d.)

Procedural Due Process. (n.d.)

Terry v. Ohio. (n.d.)

The Constitution of the United States. (1787).