How does Criminal Law Interact with the US Constitution?

If you are in any courthouse in the US, in any department, several times a day, you will hear a lawyer say “your honor the United States Constitution States that” and then explain their argument in the case. The bill of rights is commonly referred to in criminal law because the bill of rights is just the first 10 amendments of the constitution. We often get asked how the US constitution relates to criminal law so we thought it would be a good idea to explain some of the most important amendments in regards to criminal law and show how they are related.

First Amendment

The first amendment of the US constitution protects against freedom of speech, religion and association. It gives people the right to say what they want with a small amount of restrictions, practice whatever religion they want and associate with who they want. In criminal law, sometimes people push the boundaries on their constitutional rights. For example, someone who knows they have freedom of speech may bring a sign or start a demonstration at a political rally. Now the police may tell them that if they don’t leave, they are going to be charged with disturbing the peace. The protestor may stay because they believe it is within their rights and they will be charged with a crime.

Another example and a more controversial example is a “gang injunction”. In San Diego, years ago, the city passed what was called a gang injunction. This was the city saying that certain people who are in gang (it was a huge list of people) cannot hang out together. Many legal scholars believe that if challenged in the US Supreme court, it is possible that the gang injunction would be seen as unlawful because it is putting a burden on people’s freedom of association.

Second Amendment

The second amendment is the right to bear arms and it is very easy to see the connection with criminal law. The second amendment in simple terms allows someone to have a firearm in the United States. However, there is a contrast in law where if someone is convicted of a felony, they are not able to possess a firearm. There is also the case where if someone were convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence in California, they would also not be able to possess a firearm. Recently though the Supreme Court has noted that if challenged, they may change that law after taking it under careful consideration.

Fourth Amendment

The fourth amendment is probably the most important one in relation to criminal law. The fourth amendment protects against illegal search and seizure and it gives everyone a right to have their person place and things protected by law. It is extremely common that someone will be pulled over in a traffic stop without probable cause for the stop. It is also very common that the police will search someone on the street or search their home without probable cause. A violation under the fourth amendment suppresses every piece of evidence after that illegal search, which means that no evidence after it can be used against you in your case. If the police pulled over a driver for no reason, ended up searching their car, and found drugs in the vehicle, all those drugs would be suppressed and the case would be dismissed.

Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment protects against self-incrimination and double jeopardy. Self-incrimination means that no one can ever be compelled to say something that could be used against them, in a court of law. No person ever has to give testimony in their case and no person ever has to testify in their trial. They can only be called as a witness by the defense and only after they have testified can they be cross-examined by the prosecution. The right to not be a victim of double jeopardy means that once you are found not guilty of a crime you can never be charged with that crime again. Essentially, after you are found not guilty, even if you admit to the crime, you can never be charged with it again. This was put into place so that people would not be harassed by the criminal system and by the government. Once the verdict is read, the case is final.

Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment protects actual rights after the arrest has been made. The right to confront an accuser, a right to a speedy and public trial by jury, to be notified against the charges against you and the right to retain counsel of your choosing. The sixth amendment most commonly comes up in domestic violence issues. Lets use an example where someone is charged with domestic violence and their significant other called 911 to report it. The 911 call contained a statement of the events. Now as a criminal defense attorney in San Diego, we will often get a call of someone saying, “well they are not going to show up to trial so the case should be dismissed”. We then explain to them that that is not the case. They have a right to confront their accuser, that is true. Therefore if their accuser is not present then no evidence of their testimony can come in at trial. If there were no testimony against them, then one would think the case would be dismissed. The problem is, is the 911 call. The Supreme Court has ruled that the 911 call can be admitted as testimony in an emergency situation like this. If the 911 call gets admitted, and the person has no way to cross examine the person who made the call, that is a lot worse for them and would likely result in a conviction.

Eight Amendment

The Eight Amendment protects against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment. In a criminal context there is generally a bail schedule and one cannot be held for anything over what is reasonable bail. Cruel and unusual punishment is less common in the United States but can always be argued in certain situations. In Canada for example they believe the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment.

The Bill of Rights and the US constitution are big parts of criminal law and these are the ways that they interact with the justice system.

Ozols Law Firm

San Diego Criminal Lawyer Alex Ozols practices criminal law exclusively. Ozols Law Firm is commonly asked how the constitution interacts with criminal law so we thought it was essential to explain this process for our readers.