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Civil Liberties in the United States

Individual Rights in Criminal and Civil Cases in the United States

4th Amendment Protections on Police Searches and Seizures

Following the 4th Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," the Supreme Court adopted the exclusionary rule, which bars illegally obtained evidence from being used in a trial.
The 4th Amendment gives citizens protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures." This civil liberty was strongly affirmed by the Supreme Court in the landmark case Mapp v. Ohio (1961). It applied the judicial principle forbidding the use of evidence that has been illegally obtained, in violation of the 4th Amendment, known as the exclusionary rule. New technology has introduced new questions about what constitutes reasonable search. In Katz v. United States (1967), the Supreme Court decided that police needed a warrant to place a wiretap on a public pay phone. In 2012 in United States v. Jones, the court determined that placing a GPS device on a suspect's car without a warrant was an unconstitutional search. In Riley v. California (2014), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police cannot conduct a warrantless search of the contents of a cell phone except in an emergency that creates a compelling government interest.

5th Amendment Guarantees of Due Process and the Right to Avoid Self-Incrimination

Based on the 5th Amendment guarantee of due process and protection against self-incrimination, the Supreme Court requires police to provide suspects with a Miranda warning before interrogating them.
The 5th Amendment guarantees that suspects must be given due process and grants a defendant the right to avoid self-incrimination. Defendants can use that right to not answer questions in a trial. The right also applies to police interrogations due to an important Supreme Court decision. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court ruled that police questioning of a suspect is invalid and thus inadmissible in court if the suspect is not informed of his or her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Thus, before questioning a suspect, police provide a Miranda warning, a statement by police that informs a person being interrogated of the right to remain silent and to have an attorney. The Miranda case was decided by a narrow 5–4 majority. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Tom C. Clark argued that the strict interpretation of the 5th Amendment would hamper the police in the fulfillment of their duties. Despite that concern, the Miranda warnings became part of ordinary police practice. After the ruling, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in 1968, which attempted to overrule the decision. In Dickerson v. United States (2000), the court ruled that the Miranda warning was a constitutional protection that could not be overturned by Congress.

6th Amendment Protections for Criminal Defendants

Under the 6th Amendment, defendants must be provided with a lawyer even if they cannot afford one and must be given a speedy trial before a jury in the state where the offense occurred.
The 6th Amendment deals comprehensively with the rights of criminal defendants. It provides for a defendant's right to a speedy trial and for an impartial jury in the state where the offense took place. The amendment also specifies that a defendant should be confronted by adverse witnesses and should have the right to summon witnesses in his favor. Finally, the 6th Amendment holds that a defendant should have the assistance of counsel. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that the right to legal counsel afforded to criminal defendants by the 6th Amendment meant that the government must provide counsel whenever defendants lacked the resources to pay for a lawyer to represent them. Gideon was a landmark case that triggered the creation of the public defender system in the United States.

7th Amendment and Rights in Civil Cases

The 7th Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases, though that right can be waived by a defendant.
The 7th Amendment establishes the right to a trial by jury in civil cases. This provision has been relatively uncontroversial. Cases related to this amendment have focused on such issues as the role of judge in a civil jury trial and the kinds of instructions judges can give to juries. The right to a civil trial by jury is not absolute, as it can be waived by the defendant and the case then decided by a judge.

8th Amendment Limits on Bail and Punishment

The 8th Amendment prevents the state from setting excessive bail when holding an individual in custody before trial and from excessive sentences on those found guilty of crimes, a provision that has prompted litigation over the death penalty and resulted in court decisions placing limits on its use.

The 8th Amendment forbids any requirement of excessive bail (money paid as security to allow a defendant to stay out of jail until trial) or any imposition of excessive fines). It also forbids the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." Jail time for a minor traffic offense, for instance, would be unconstitutional.

The cruel and unusual punishments provision, which arose out of concerns over English punishments that included painful torture techniques, has proved particularly controversial in the debate over the death penalty. In a key case, Furman v. Georgia (1972), the court seriously questioned the application of the death penalty. Addressing three related cases in which those convicted of crimes were sentenced to death, two for murder and one for rape, the court said that the death penalty constituted "cruel and unusual punishment." Two of the five justices in the majority said that was the case in all death penalty cases. The other three objected to the fact that the imposition of this sentence often reflected racial bias. The decision forced many states to reevaluate their laws about the death penalty. In subsequent years, the court placed some limitations to its use. In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), for example, the court ruled that the execution of a convict with clinical mental illnesses is unconstitutional. The court's ruling in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) extended this prohibition to offenders with intellectual disabilities. In 2005 the court held in Roper v. Simmons that execution of offenders who were minors (under 18) when they committed their crimes is also unconstitutional.