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Legal Rights

This timeline provides milestones as legal rights of the accused have evolved through U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

1856Seizure Of Property Without Full Hearing Allowed

The federal government seizes property from a man who owes it money. He argues that the lack of a hearing violates his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land and Improvement Co. that different processes may be legitimate in different circumstances.

To determine the constitutionality of a procedure, the Court looks at whether it violates specific safeguards in the Constitution and whether similar types of proceedings had been used historically, particularly in England. In this case, because a summary method for the recovery of debts had been used in England, the procedure is constitutional in the U.S.

1898Court Decides Jury Must Have 12 People

In Thompson v. Utah, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that, just as in England, a jury must have 12 people when someone is charged with a serious crime.

1922Hearing Required Before Deportation

In Ng Fung Ho v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Fifth Amendment due process clause requires the government to hold a hearing before deporting a U.S. resident who claims to be a citizen, arguing that otherwise the person is deprived of liberty, and possibly in danger of losing property and life.

1922Conviction In Both Federal And State Court Not Double Jeopardy

A defendant who had been convicted in state court objects to having to stand trial in federal court for the same crime. In United States v. Lanza, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the double jeopardy clause was not violated because the state and federal legal systems are different government “units,” and that each can determine what shall be an offense against its peace and dignity.

1924Right Against Self-Incrimination Applies In Some Civil Cases

In McCarthy v. Arndstein, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a debtor testifying at his own bankruptcy hearing is allowed to refuse to answer questions because his answers might incriminate him. The Court holds that the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination applies to defendants in civil cases, not just criminal defendants, when criminal prosecution might result from the disclosure.

1930Defendants Can Give Up Right To Jury Trial

In Patton v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that defendants can give up their right to a jury trial, and choose to have the judge alone decide their guilt or innocence. This choice must be made with the understanding of what they are giving up (that is, it must be an “intelligent” or “knowing” choice). In the federal courts and in some state courts, the prosecution and the judge also must agree not to have a jury.

1932The ‘Scottsboro Boys’ Case

In Powell v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the convictions and death sentences of nine African Americans known as the “Scottsboro Boys” because their rape trial had been held in Scottsboro, Ala. The court finds that the teens were denied their Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel because they had not seen an attorney until the morning of the trial and had no chance to put on a meaningful defense.

In a second trial, the nine again are convicted, despite testimony by one of the two alleged victims, both white, that the rape never occurred. After the justices reverse those convictions because of the exclusion of African Americans from the jury, a third trial occurs. Four defendants are again convicted and a fifth pleads guilty; charges against the four others are dropped. By 1950, four of the five men will be paroled; the fifth will die in prison.

1943Restrictions On Japanese Americans Upheld

In Hirabayashi v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court says a federal law passed after Pearl Harbor that requires Japanese Americans to live in restricted areas and obey curfews does not violate their Fifth Amendment right to due process. The case revolves around the conviction of Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, a Japanese American college student, who had refused to register for relocation and had violated a curfew. The Court does not address the relocation issue and instead focuses on the curfew, which it deems a necessary “protective measure.”

1944Organizations Do Not Have Right Against Self-Incrimination

In United States v. White, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a labor union under criminal investigation cannot refuse to turn over its records on the grounds of self-incrimination, explaining that the Bill of Rights was enacted to protect individuals, not organizations, from the government.

1948Secret Trials Violate Due Process Right

In In re Oliver, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a Michigan man who was convicted and sentenced during a secret grand jury hearing before a single judge. The hearing had occurred under a Michigan law allowing a single judge to hold secret grand jury proceedings. The Court does not rule on the law because it was not challenged by the defendant. Grand jury proceedings, held to decide whether to issue an indictment (confirming enough evidence exists to take a case to full trial), traditionally are conducted in private. In this case, the one-man grand jury went further when the judge also decided the defendant’s guilt and sentenced him to jail.

1954Exclusion Of Ethnic Groups From Jury Unconstitutional

In Hernandez v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the exclusion of Mexican Americans from a jury, through the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges (objections to certain potential jurors serving on a jury without any specific reason), violates the 14th Amendment’s requirement that all people be treated equally.

1961Pretrial Publicity Can Jeopardize Right To Impartial Jury

If there has been an excessive amount of press coverage or other publicity before a defendant goes to trial, it may not be possible to find people to serve on a jury who have not prejudged the case. In Irvin v. Dowd, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a criminal defendant is entitled to have a trial relocated to another community to make sure that the jury will be impartial.

1965Exclusion Of Jurors Based On Race Unconstitutional

In Swain v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that prosecutors cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude jurors of a particular race (as it had ruled earlier about ethnic groups). The Court sets rules for proving that jurors have been stricken because of their race. Having few or no minority jurors is not proof enough. It is necessary to show that minority jurors in a certain community have been excluded over a series of trials or over a period of years before a constitutional violation can be found. The Court’s 1994 ruling in J.E.B v. Alabama extends this provision to sex as well as race.

1968Reservations About Death Penalty Should Not Bar One From Jury

A person who expresses reservations about the death penalty is not necessarily unfit to serve on a jury, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Witherspoon v. Illinois. The Court holds that a prosecutor can “strike” a person from the jury “for cause” (that is, because of indications that the person cannot be fair) only if the potential juror cannot make an impartial decision about imposing the death penalty.

1969Double Jeopardy Applies To State Trials

In Benton v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the double jeopardy clause represents a fundamental ideal of “our constitutional heritage,” and extends double jeopardy protection to defendants in state court trials. The justices also cite the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on state governments limiting liberty without due process. Double jeopardy, the Court rules, violates the due process rights of the accused.

1970Requirement Of 12-Member Jury Eased

Although it is not specified in the Constitution, the Supreme Court in Thompson v. Utah ruled in 1898 that, just as in England, a jury must have 12 people when trying someone charged with a serious crime. However, in Williams v. Florida, the Supreme Court calls a 12-member jury a “historical accident” and decides that what matters is if the jury’s size will allow it to reach a fair decision. The court finds that it makes sense to determine the jury’s size by the seriousness of the crime.

1971Jury Trials Not Required For Juvenile Cases

Although Kent and Winship gave juveniles in criminal cases many of the same constitutional protections as adults, in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that juveniles do not have the right to a trial by jury in juvenile court.

1972Justices Relax Requirement On Unanimous Verdicts

In Apodaca v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that although the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous decisions for guilty verdicts in federal trials, it allows state courts to decide whether unanimity is required.

2001Presidential Order Permits Military Trials Of Suspected Terrorists

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush signs a military order authorizing the government to detain noncitizens suspected of terrorism, and to try them before military tribunals. Civil liberties groups criticize the order, fearing that the accused might be held indefinitely without receiving a trial, and that trials could be held in secret, without the usual rules about the kind of evidence that is admissible.

2003Death Sentence Imposed After Retrial Not Double Jeopardy

A defendant is convicted of first-degree murder, but the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision whether to sentence the defendant to death or to life in prison. By default, a life sentence is imposed. The defendant appeals his conviction and wins a retrial, but the second jury unanimously hands down a death sentence. In Sattazahn v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that this second verdict does not violate the double jeopardy clause because the first jury’s inability to reach a unanimous verdict means that there was no official finding of the facts regarding what kind of penalty the defendant deserved. As these questions remain open at the time of the second trial, the second jury can look at the facts again.

2019Attorneys Must Follow Client’s Instructions To Appeal, Despite Waiver

In Garza v. Idaho, the U.S. Supreme Court says in a 6-3 ruling that attorneys cannot ignore their clients’ instructions to file appeals from criminal convictions even if the clients signed an agreement to waive appeals as part of their plea agreements. If the attorneys refuse, that is ineffective assistance of counsel.

2020Half Of Oklahoma Within Native American Reservation, Court Says

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 5-4 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that much of eastern Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation, a decision that will have major consequences for both past and future criminal and civil cases. The ruling hinged on the question of whether the Creek reservation continued to exist after Oklahoma became a state. “Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of fed­eral criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

The ruling is about jurisdiction, not land ownership. Now, certain major crimes committed within the boundaries of reservations must be prosecuted in federal court rather than state court if a Native American is involved. Less serious crimes involving Native Americans on reservation land will be handled in tribal courts. Many past decisions are now considered wrongful convictions because the state lacked jurisdiction. A number of criminal defendants who have been convicted will now have grounds to challenge their convictions.