The criminal justice system is governed by a set of rules and procedures that have their roots in the United States Constitution. These rules apply from the moment law enforcement stops a potential suspect for questioning, throughout the criminal trial process, and even govern the appeals process.
Each state has its own criminal code, which contains the substantive criminal laws of the state that define crimes. States also have their own statutes that establish criminal procedure. Criminal procedure refers to the rules that govern criminal proceedings where substantive criminal law is applied. The rules of criminal procedure apply at criminal hearings and trials and ensure that the government applies the law consistently and fairly in accordance with the Constitution.
State criminal courts follow the code of criminal procedure established by state law. Federal courts are governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which are drafted by the Supreme Court and passed by Congress. Criminal procedure on both a state and federal level has been impacted by important Supreme Court decisions that interpret how the constitutional guarantees of due process apply through the criminal process.
This article provides an overview of the criminal process, the constitutional rights that shape criminal procedure, and key Supreme Court cases that impact federal and state criminal procedure.
The Criminal Process Generally
The criminal process begins with investigation by law enforcement. Law enforcement at the local, state, and federal level investigate crimes within their jurisdiction. Law enforcement police through different methods. These methods include surveying suspects in public, responding to 911 calls or complaints of a crime in progress, gathering evidence and obtaining warrants to search suspect’s houses or cars, or routine traffic stops that lead to arrests.
When law enforcement finds sufficient evidence that a crime has been committed, they can arrest the suspected person and/or provide information to the District Attorney’s office so that the District Attorney can consider filing a criminal complaint against the suspect. The state is represented by the local office of the District Attorney, who is generally appointed by the Governor. Each County has their own District Attorney who is responsible for prosecuting crimes within the county.
The District Attorney has the power to decide to file a criminal complaint against a person who is suspected of committing a crime. Some states utilize grand juries to decide whether to file a complaint against an accused person. Grand juries are composed of members of the community who serve for a period of months or years. The grand jury hears all evidence, even evidence that may not be admissible in criminal proceedings, and votes on whether to indict the accused person. If the grand jury or prosecutor decides to file a complaint against a person accused of a crime, the court will issue an arrest warrant and the accused will be taken into custody.
In states that don’t use grand juries, the defendant usually has a preliminary hearing after the District Attorney files a complaint. The purpose of the preliminary hearing is to determine whether the state has sufficient evidence to indict the accused person. The state prosecutor must show it has probable cause that the defendant committed the crime. At the preliminary hearing, the prosecutor submits evidence and witnesses to the judge, and the defendant has the right to cross-examine the state’s witnesses.
If the judge finds there is sufficient evidence to proceed, the next step in the process is a pre-trial hearing. At this hearing, the state and defense counsel have the opportunity to file motions with the judge. The most common motions are motions to suppress evidence made by defendant’s counsel or motions to limit who can testify.
After the pre-trial hearing, the case proceeds to trial. After the parties select a jury and each side gives an opening statement, the prosecutor puts on the case-in-chief for the state. The prosecutor calls all of its witnesses and submits all of its admissible evidence to the judge and jury. After the prosecutor rests, the defendant has the chance to present his or her witnesses and evidence. After both sides rest, they present closing arguments and give the case to the jury to deliberate.
The jury deliberates and then delivers its decisions to the judge. In April 2020, the Supreme Court confirmed that a jury must reach a unanimous decision in order for a defendant to be convicted. Prior to this case, Oregon and Louisiana still allowed criminal convictions based on non-unanimous jury verdicts.
Following a guilty verdict, the defendant is sentenced by the judge. For misdemeanor crimes, the judge generally sentences the defendant immediately following trial. For serious crimes or felonies, the judge holds a sentencing hearing where both sides present arguments as to what the appropriate sentence should be.
The defendant has the chance to present mitigating factors, such as good character, remorse for the crime, or other life circumstances that support a lesser sentence. The prosecutor will present aggravating factors supporting why a greater sentence should be imposed, such as testimony from a victim’s family.
After sentencing, the defendant has the opportunity to appeal the conviction based on different grounds while he or she serves the sentence.
Fourth Amendment Rights
The Fourth Amendment provides perhaps the most important protections to the public against the potential abuses of law enforcement. The Fourth Amendment protects people against unreasonable searches and seizures. It establishes that courts cannot issue a search warrant without probable cause that a crime has been committed. Any warrant has to state with specificity the person and place to be searched and things to be seized. A warrant that does not comply with these requirements or that is based on unreliable information that a crime has been committed will be found invalid.
The Fourth Amendment restricts the policing abilities of law enforcement to search, arrest, and stop-and-frisk people without evidence that a crime has been committed. It also limits law enforcement’s abilities to wiretap and survey a suspect.
If evidence is obtained without adhering to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, it can be excluded at trial under the exclusionary rule. The Supreme Court ruled in Mapp v. Ohio that any evidence obtained by searches and seizures that violate the Fourth Amendment are inadmissible.
Fifth and Sixth Amendment Rights
The Fifth Amendment provides the basis for due process in criminal law. It states that the government cannot deprive the people of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The Fifth Amendment establishes that a defendant cannot be called to self-incriminate or testify against himself or herself. The Fourteenth Amendment extends these due process protections to the states, so that state governments must abide by the same rules.
The right to due process means the right to both substantive due process and procedural due process. Procedural due process is particularly important in criminal law because the government is attempting to deprive the defendant of his or her liberty. Procedural due process means that the government has to be fair in its application of the law. The procedural due process protections of the Fifth Amendment continue to evolve as technology and policing change.
The Sixth Amendment ensures that a person accused of a crime has the right to a speedy trial by his or her peers. It also provides the accused has a right to an attorney and the right to confront his or her accusers. The Sixth Amendment and Section 2 of the Constitution form the basis for the right to a jury trial in criminal cases. The Sixth Amendment is important because it ensures that the government cannot wait long in order to charge a person with a crime or bring the case to trial. Generally, a trial must be within 70 days after the prosecutor files the complaint or indictment.
The Sixth Amendment’ guarantees the right to an impartial jury. In accordance with the right to an impartial jury, the Voir Dire process gives each side the ability to question potential jurors and use peremptory challenges to excuse potential jurors from a panel.
The Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights are so crucial that the Supreme Court ruled in Miranda v. Arizona that law enforcement must inform a detained person in custody of these rights before beginning questioning about a possible crime. The Miranda rights include the right to remain silent, notice that anything said can be used against a detained person in court, the right to an attorney, and notice that if the accused cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.
Any confession obtained without first administering the Miranda warnings will be presumed to be involuntary and cannot be used in a criminal proceeding.
Eighth Amendment Rights
The Eighth Amendment protects against excessive bails and fines and “cruel and unusual punishments” for criminal convictions. The Eighth Amendment is meant to safeguard people from excessive punishments imposed by the government. The Eighth Amendment reflects the fear that the government may use barbaric methods of punishment, like those used in Europe, to punish criminals.
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