The Fourth Amendment: Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized."
The Fourth Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures" was adopted as a protection against the widespread invasions of privacy experienced by American colonists at the hands of the British Government. So-called "writs of assistance" gave royal officers broad discretion to conduct searches of the homes of private citizens, primarily as a way of discovering violations of strict British customs laws. This practice led to a unique awareness among our Founding Fathers of the threat to individual liberty and privacy that is created by unchecked government search powers.
Today, the Fourth Amendment has lost its preferred status among our cherished Bill of Rights Protections. In recent decades, growing concerns regarding crime and public safety in America have forced our Courts to balance the privacy rights contained in the Constitution with the ever-expanding needs of law-enforcement officers whose duty it is to investigate and arrest dangerous criminals. The Supreme Court's rulings in Fourth Amendment cases demonstrate the challenge involved in reconciling these competing ideals.
Ultimately, the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures has been trimmed-down in recent years and tailored to suit the needs of modern law enforcement as we wage war against drugs and terrorism. For this reason, it is important for conscientious citizens to be familiar with the lawful parameters of police authority to conduct searches, as well as the legal doctrines by which that authority is limited.
The Fifth Amendment: Self-Incrimination & Due Process
"No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself or be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law..."
The right against self-incrimination has ancient roots in common law dating back to biblical times. While most provisions of the Fifth Amendment, such as the right to a jury trial and the right against double jeopardy, impose restrictions upon our courts, the right against self-incrimination has a profound effect upon the behavior of law-enforcement officers as they investigate crimes. For this reason, the meaning of the self-incrimination clause has remained one of the most controversial issues in criminal procedure since the Supreme Court's ruling in Miranda v. Arizona.
At this time, it is required by the Supreme Court that police inform all criminal suspects of their right to remain silent prior to interrogation. This right extends from the point of arrest throughout the suspect's involvement in the criminal justice system. While many in the law-enforcement community feel that this restriction unfairly limits the ability of police and prosecutors to obtain convictions, studies have shown that conviction rates have not changed significantly since the Court first required police to inform arrestees of their right against self-incrimination.
The Sixth Amendment: Right to Counsel
"In all criminal proceedings, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense."
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is a critical component of the Bill of Rights in that it provides the accused with an advocate who is trained in the legal process and can provide a safeguard against violations of the suspect's other Bill of Rights protections. Interestingly, it was not until 1963 that the Supreme Court held that states must provide a lawyer for all felony suspects, ending disparities in legal representation based on economic class.
Today, all person charged with a serious crime in the United States enjoy the assistance of a defense attorney regardless of economic status. State-employed public defenders represent clients who cannot afford their own attorneys, and contrary to popular belief, achieve roughly equal outcomes for their clients as do the more expensive privately-hired lawyers.
The Relationship Between Self-incrimination and the Right to Counsel
Many Americans, particularly young people, have become cynical about police practices and our legal system. It is not uncommon to lose hope when arrested or even become angry at the officer or the law he is enforcing. The reality, however, is that our legal system does provide services for the accused. It cannot be overstated how important it is to wait for legal advice before attempting to discuss a criminal charge with police. The subtleties of the legal process require careful decisions about what to say and how to say it. A lawyer will help you prepare for tough questions and can emphasize your positive qualities to the judge.
The Constitution includes protections for criminal suspects because the legal system is incredibly complex, involving rules and regulations that most everyday people do not understand. If you are charged with a crime, take advantage of the protections the Constitution gives you. Don't talk to police about what happened until you have spoken with a lawyer and discussed how best to present your side of the story.