UNITED STATES CRIMINAL DEFENSE MANUAL
LEGAL TRAINING RESOURCE CENTER
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic made up of fifty states and one federal district. The United State's capital is Washington D.C. On April 19, 1775, the Revolutionary War began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The following year, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The 4th of July is now recognized in the United States as Independence Day. On November 15, 1777, the Second Continental Congress submitted the Articles of Confederation for ratification by the states. The Articles of Confederation remained in effect through the end of the Revolutionary War, September 3, 1783, up until it was superseded by the Constitution on September 17, 1787.
The Constitution is the supreme law of the Untied States. It creates the three branches of the federal government: the legislature, the executive branch, and the judicial branch.
The legislature is comprised of two branches, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate is made up of 100 senators, two per state, who are elected for a term of six years. The Vice President of the United States also serves as the president of the Senate. In the even of a tie vote, the Vice President will cast the tie breaking vote. The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives, apportioned among the states based on population. Each representative is elected to a two-year term. The majority party, either the Democrats or Republicans, elects from among its members the Speaker of the House. The Speaker of the House is the leader of the House of Representatives and is second in the line of succession for the presidency, behind the Vice President. The drafters of the Constitution intended for the legislature to be the most powerful branch of government. The 20th century, however, saw a dramatic expansion in the power of the executive branch, and as a result, some commentators argue that the legislature is no longer the most important branch. Regardless of whether is this true, the legislature still retains the ultimate power within the federal government. The power to tax and spend.
The executive branch oversees the administration of the state bureaucracy. Article II Section 1 of the Constitution grants the executive power in the President and creates the office Vice President. The President serves as the head of state, commander-in-chief, and chief executive of the federal government. As commander-in-chief, the President is the supreme commander of the armed forces. In his role as chief executive, the President oversees the administration of the executive agencies. The executive branch makes up roughly 1.844 million of the nearly 2 million federal workers.
The judicial branch is comprised of the federal courts: the Supreme Court, the United Court of Appeals, the United States District Courts, the United States Bankruptcy Courts, and the United States Courts of Special Jurisdiction. The Supreme Court, the highest court, currently consists of nine Justices. The Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. Below the Supreme Court is the appeals court. The court of appeals is organized by circuits, of which there are 12. Underneath the court of appeals are the district courts. The district courts are the federal trial courts. The district courts are divided by judicial district, with at least one district in each state. There are 94 federal districts.
In addition to the federal government, each state has its own government and constitution. While given a certain level of independence from the federal government, the states, and the states' constitutions, are required to act within the bounds of the United States Constitution.
Type of System
The legal system comes from the British common law system that was used during the Revolutionary War. Since declaring independence from the British, the United States' legal system has adopted some civil law characteristics. Today, there are four sources of law: the Constitution, statutes, administrative regulations, and common law.
Source of Defendants' Rights
The primary source of defendants' rights in the federal court system is the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments establish certain rights for defendants in federal court. The Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause incorporates all of the rights provided in those amendments (expect for the fifth amendment's right to a grand jury) and applies the amendments to state and local governments.
A defendant is entitled to a large number of pre-trial rights. The fundamental rights that all defendants in the United States are afforded are found in the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and the Eight Amendment's ban on excessive bail. The Fourth Amendment reads:
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.
Defendants also have pre-trial rights that are rooted in protections granted in the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment reads:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The most famous pre-trial protections derived from the Fifth Amendment are the Miranda Warnings, which require the police to inform a suspect that the suspect has the right to remain silent. That anything the suspect says or does can and will be held against the suspect in the court of law. That the suspect as the right to an attorney and that if the suspect cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed.
The Sixth Amendment:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
The Eighth Amendment:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
- 2009 Prison Population: 2,297,400 / 748 people per 100,000, the highest in the world on a per capita basis
- 200,000 of these prisoners are over 50 years of age
- 110.1% prison occupancy level (based on official capacity)
- U.S. Const. amend. VI
- U.S. Const. amend. VIII