Your Basic Constitutional Rights in the Criminal Justice System

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Constitutional rights

Constitutional rights in the criminal justice system


What is the criminal justice process?

Anyone arrested for a crime goes through the criminal justice process.


Generally, the criminal justice process includes: 

  • all formal court hearings, and 

  • everything that happens from the time a person is suspected of committing a crime until the case is over. This includes:

    • Formal arrest, 

    • Preliminary hearings, 

    • Grand jury indictments, 

    • Arraignment, 

    • Trial, and

    • The appeals process.

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What constitutional rights do I have during the criminal justice process?

The Constitution of the United States protects basic rights through the criminal justice process. The government cannot violate your constitutional rights. 


Rights under the Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment requires states to:

  • provide due process of law in all actions including criminal laws.

    • Due process at its most elementary level includes the right to be heard. In other words, the accused has a right to: 

      • A trial; 

      • put up evidence; 

      • cross-examine witnesses against them;

      • testify if he or she chooses; 

      • make people come to court by issuing a subpoena, etc. 

  • give equal protection to all citizens.

    • Equal protection must be given to all people. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that governments treat people equally. States cannot treat individuals different because of a factor like race, sex, or age. For example, a prison sentence for the same crime cannot be different solely because of a person’s race.


Rights under the Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment:

  • requires a pretrial hearing by a grand jury in felony cases.

  • outlaws a second trial for the same crime (double jeopardy).

    • This means that a person who is acquitted of a crime after a trial cannot be prosecuted a second time.

  • protects suspects from having to answer questions which could be used against them.

    • A suspect never has to talk about a crime if it will expose the suspect to criminal prosecution.

  • guarantees fair proceedings when people are threatened by a loss of life, liberty, or property by the government. 

  • ensures compensation for people whose property is taken by the government.


Rights under the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment:

  • protects people from unreasonable police searches and seizures.

  • sets requirements for search warrants.


Rights under the Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment guarantees an accused person the right:

  • to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.

  • to be informed of the charges and evidence.

  • for them or their attorney to be present when witnesses testify against them.

  • to have a lawyer and call witnesses in defense.


Rights under the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment:

  • Requires judges to set reasonable and consistent bail.

  • Requires judges to make the sentence fit the crime.

  • Bans cruel and unusual punishment by government actors.

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What can I do if the government violates my constitutional rights?

If your constitutional rights are violated during the criminal process, you may be able to bring a civil lawsuit against the government. In general, to bring a rights violation, you must:

  • Identify the constitutional right that was violated, and

  • Show that the person or people who violated the right were acting for or on behalf of the government at the time of the violation. 


You may also be able to use the constitutional violation as a defense in your criminal case. For example, if the police search your home without a warrant, anything found during that search might be thrown out as evidence if the search is unconstitutional. 


If you believe your constitutional rights were violated, contact an attorney.

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More info

Legal Help

  • For help in Fulton, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett, or DeKalb County, contact Atlanta Legal Aid. Fill out the Atlanta Legal Aid online intake application or call 404-524-5811 (main line), 404-389-9992 (Georgia Senior Legal Aid), to see if you qualify for legal assistance.

  • If you live in any other Georgia county, contact the Georgia Legal Services Program for help. Access the GLSP online intake application or call 1-833-457-7529 to see if you qualify for legal assistance.

Last Review and Update: Mar 25, 2022
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