December 27, 2023 | SCOTUS Issues Term’s First Decision – Finds ADA Case Moot
|The relevant text of the 5th Amendment reads as follows: “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.” Stated simply, this means that (provided the military exception does not apply) a person cannot be indicted without a grand jury.
An indictment is the formal charge, or accusation, that is needed before a person can stand trial for a crime. A grand jury, then, consists of a group of people chosen from the community which is responsible for deciding whether or not the accusation has merit. It should be noted that it is not the grand jury’s job to decide whether the accused is guilty or innocent. Rather, the jury decides whether there is so-called ‘probable cause.’ The term ‘probable cause’ shows up in several distinct legal contexts. Here, it means that there must be some minimum threshold that a prosecutor must show before a person can be formally indicted for a crime.
As an aside, current federal rules (grand juries exist in state courts as well), a grand jury must consist of 16-23 jurors.
|Among the 5th Amendment’s guarantees is that “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Generally, this means that a person accused of a crime cannot be put on trial for that crime more than once. However, this one statement is a vast oversimplification. The Supreme Court, reading into the language of this clause and interpreting this right over the years, has reached several distinct conclusions and qualifications regarding the protection against ‘double jeopardy.’
Importantly, the entire guarantee only applies within one court system. Were the United States to be made of one system, this clause would apply throughout the country and in any court. However, the United States is exactly that: an alliance of sorts between several states, or sovereigns. The federal government is one court system, and the states are each their own individual court systems. Therefore, even if a person could not be prosecuted a second time in federal court after having already stood trial in another federal court, he could be prosecuted in state court – and vice versa. In a stark example, in United States v. Lara (2004), the Supreme Court held that Native American tribal courts were also separate sovereigns. Therefore, double jeopardy didn’t apply when the defendant was charged in federal court after already having been charged in tribal court.
However, if a defendant is put on trial in one court system, he or she may not be subjected to another trial within that same system if the underlying alleged crime is the same. For example, in Ashe v. Swenson (1970), the Supreme Court examined a prosecution against someone accused of robbing someone at a poker game. However, as it happened, the accused was already acquitted for the robbery with regard to a different person present at that exact same poker game. In other words, a court had already concluded that this defendant was not the thief. It didn’t matter that the victim was different in the second case. The issue had already been litigated.
Still, additional exceptions do exist to the double jeopardy doctrine. For example, the text of the amendment is explicit that what may not happen twice is a defendant being twice subjected to a threat against “life and limb.” Obviously, not all trials threaten life and limb. Criminal trials – in which the accused could go to jail or even be given the death penalty – falls under this umbrella. However, in civil trials, such “punishments” are not at stake. In general, civil trials are between two private parties, and do not involve a person being accused of a crime. Therefore, as a general rule, a defendant on trial for some crime may later be sued in civil court for the same action. Similarly, there do exist some government-related consequences that also do not threaten “life and limb.” In United States v. Ursery (1996), for example, the Supreme Court held that the government could prosecute someone for producing marijuana – even after initiating a proceeding against the defendant to seize his land. The land seizure did not count as a threat to life and limb. Therefore, it was not unconstitutional for him to be later prosecuted. There was no double jeopardy.
|Ashe v. Swenson (1970)
United States v. Ursery (1996)
United States v. Lara (2004)
|The right to not have to ‘self-incriminate’ is perhaps the most widely well-known of the 5th Amendment’s guarantees. A defendant taking a stand at a trial and “pleading the 5th” is fairly common in pop culture depictions of courtrooms. The time-of-arrest Miranda warnings, where a police officer explains that the person being arrested has “the right to remain silent” also stems from the 5th Amendment. Broadly speaking, this right is as follows: a person cannot be forced to disclose information that would lead a court to find against that person.
In general, the right against self-incrimination is practiced in a criminal setting. In other words, a prosecutor accuses a defendant of a crime and the defendant refuses to testify against himself in his trial. Importantly, this refusal may not be used against the defendant in court. Meaning, the prosecutor or judge is not allowed to tell the jury that the defendant’s refusal to testify is at all an inference of guilt. For example, in Griffin v. California (1965), the defendant had been accused and convicted of murder. But at the trial, the court allowed the prosecutor to suggest that the defendant’s refusal to testify was indicative of his guilt. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the conviction – stating that this inference was a violation of the defendant’s 5th Amendment rights. Aa refusal to testify is not only unable to be used to determine guilt, but in Mitchell v. United States (1999), the Court held that it couldn’t even be used – after already determining guilt – to aid in the determination of the sentence.
However, the right against self-incrimination doesn’t only exist in criminal courts. A party in a civil lawsuit may also refuse to testify to his or her own detriment. As early as 1924, in McCarthy v. Arndstein, the Supreme Court has held that the constitutional privilege against self-incrimination applied to civil cases as well. However, the privilege does not extend as far as in criminal cases. The person invoking the privilege in a civil case may be subject to inferences based on his or her refusal to testify.
Also, obviously, the privilege has been further qualified over the years. For example, in United States v. White (1944), the Supreme Court held that it didn’t apply to groups and organizations – and only to individuals. In the famous Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Court held that the privilege was not limited to the courtroom – but applied to when a police officer takes someone into custody as well, giving rise to “the right to remain silent.”
|McCarthy v. Arndstein (1924)
United States v. White (1944)
Griffin v. California (1965)
Mitchell v. United States (1999)