The Supreme Court: Mandating Criminal Rights

Mandating Criminal Rights

The next major focus for the Warren Court was criminal justice and the rights of people accused or convicted of a crime. The first landmark case in this area was Griffin v. Illinois. Griffin was convicted of a bank robbery by an Illinois state court. He wanted to appeal the decision, but could not afford to pay for a court transcript. He asked for a free transcript and his request was denied by the state court, so he appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

Warren believed that a defendant who could afford to pay for a transcript had an advantage of one who could not. The Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that it violates the Constitution for a state to refuse a transcript to a defendant who cannot afford to pay for it. The transcript is needed to adequately prepare an appeal.

Court Connotations

Misdemeanors are minor crimes with the least severe level of penalty, usually small fines and sometimes a short jail sentence. Felonies are more serious crimes with stronger penalties, larger fines and longer jail terms. Capital offenses are the most serious crimes, usually related to murder or other crimes in which the death penalty could be imposed. Whether a crime is a misdemeanor, felony, or capital offense is determined by each state. Federal law also has similar designations for crimes against the government.

This gave precedent for the decision in the next major case on the issue, Gideon v. Wainwright. In this case Clarence Gideon was charged in a Florida state court because he was accused of breaking into a poolroom with the intent to commit a misdemeanor, which was a felony under Florida law. Gideon could not afford to hire an attorney and asked for one appointed by the court. The state court refused saying that Florida law only allowed council appointed by the court when charged with a capital offense. Gideon challenged this ruling to the Supreme Court.

Gideon was forced to defend himself at trial. He was declared guilty and sentenced to five years in state prison. After the trial he petitioned the Florida Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus saying that the state's refusal to appoint counsel denied him rights “guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights by the United States Government.” The Florida State Supreme Court denied him relief. He then took his case to the United States Supreme Court.

Supreme Sayings

“The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”

—Supreme Court in its opinion on Gideon v. Wainwright

The Warren Court ruled in 1963 that not only was Gideon entitled to legal representation, but that because his request for court-appointed representation was denied by the state court, his conviction was overturned. This ruling overturned a 1942 case Betts v. Brady in which the Supreme Court ruled that a defendant was not entitled to state-appointed council. The two cases were similar. Betts was charged with a felony in Maryland state court and denied state-appointed counsel even though he could not afford counsel.

The landmark criminal rights case you're probably most familiar with is Miranda v. Arizona. This is the case that established the requirement for reading a person his or her Miranda warnings when taken into custody.

Ernesto Miranda was convicted on charges of kidnapping and rape. He had been arrested and interrogated for two hours without being advised that he had the right to have an attorney present. After two hours he confessed and that confession was used to convict him. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction because it found that the prosecution could not use statements made by a person in police custody unless certain minimum procedural safeguards were in place.

Living Laws

Today the safeguards that make up the Miranda warnings are:

  • the right to remain silent;
  • the fact that anything you say may be used in evidence against you;
  • the right to request the presence of an attorney, either retained by yourself or appointed by the court;
  • the right, even after beginning to answer questions, to stop answering questions or request an attorney.

This was definitely one of the most controversial decisions of the Warren Court. His successors, Chief Justices Warren Burger and William Rehnquist, have called for it to be overturned. We'll talk more about their attempts to overturn this ruling in the next section. In Collecting Evidence, we'll be discussing cases involving criminal proceedings.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.