Constitution of the United States | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

The U.S. Constitution is the guiding legal document that balances public safety and individual rights within the American criminal justice system.

The United States Constitution is the highest law of the land, establishing the national government, fundamental laws, and basic rights for citizens. It was signed on September 17, 1787, and replaced the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution that had loosely united the 13 original states. The Constitution is a living document that has been interpreted and applied over the past two centuries, adapting to changing societal norms and values.

Main Components of the Constitution

The Constitution is divided into three main parts: the Preamble, the Articles, and the Amendments.

The Preamble

The Preamble is the introductory paragraph of the Constitution. It sets forth the general principles and purposes of the Constitution, stating, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Articles

The Constitution contains seven Articles. The first three Articles establish the three branches of the federal government: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the President), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and other federal courts).

  • Article I deals with the legislative branch. It gives Congress its powers and limits and creates the two sections of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  • Article II outlines the executive branch, the powers of the President, the qualifications for the office, and the procedures for electing the President.
  • Article III establishes the judicial branch. It sets up the Supreme Court and allows for the creation of lower courts.

The next four Articles deal with the states, the process of amending the Constitution, the supremacy of the Constitution, and the process of ratification.

The Amendments

The Constitution has been amended 27 times since its adoption. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791 to protect the individual liberties and rights of citizens. They include the rights to free speech, freedom of religion, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a fair trial. Other significant amendments include the 13th (abolishing slavery), the 19th (giving women the right to vote), and the 26th (lowering the voting age to 18).

The Constitution in the Criminal Justice Context

The Constitution plays a critical role in the American criminal justice system. It guarantees certain rights to people accused of crimes and sets boundaries on the government’s power.

Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. In a criminal context, this means law enforcement must typically obtain a warrant from a judge before searching a person’s home or property or before arresting a person unless certain exceptions apply.

Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment includes multiple protections for criminal defendants, such as the right to remain silent (protection against self-incrimination), the right to a grand jury for certain serious offenses, the prohibition of double jeopardy (being tried twice for the same offense), and the right to due process of law.

Sixth Amendment

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to an impartial jury, the right to know the charges against oneself, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel.

Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail or fines and cruel and unusual punishment. This amendment is often cited in discussions about the death penalty and prison conditions.

Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment includes the Equal Protection Clause, which requires states to apply the law equally and not to discriminate against any person or group. It also contains the Due Process Clause, which guarantees every person the right to fair procedures before the government can deprive them of life, liberty, or property. This amendment has been used to apply many of the Bill of Rights protections to actions by state governments, in addition to the federal government.

The Importance of the Constitution in Criminal Justice

The Constitution’s role in the criminal justice system is to balance public safety against the preservation of individual rights. On the one hand, society needs law enforcement to prevent crime and maintain order. On the other hand, individuals have fundamental rights and freedoms that the government cannot infringe upon, even in the pursuit of justice.

It’s the Constitution that defines this balance. Courts interpret the Constitution and use it as a guide in making decisions that shape our criminal justice policies and practices. For instance, they decide what constitutes an “unreasonable” search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment, when a suspect’s right to counsel attaches under the Sixth Amendment, or what punishments are “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment.

Moreover, the Constitution provides a process for addressing disputes or inconsistencies within the criminal justice system. For instance, if someone believes their rights have been violated during a criminal investigation or trial, they can challenge these actions in court. The judge would then interpret the relevant constitutional provisions and apply them to the case at hand.

Checks and Balances

The Constitution also establishes a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government, which is crucial in the context of criminal justice. Each branch has some level of control or oversight over the others, ensuring no single branch becomes too powerful.

For example, while the executive branch (including law enforcement) carries out the law, the legislative branch creates the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law. If law enforcement actions are challenged, courts can determine whether they align with the Constitution. Meanwhile, if a law is found to be unconstitutional, Congress can draft new legislation to replace it.


Understanding the Constitution is crucial for understanding the criminal justice system. It is a document that not only shapes our government and laws but also provides the basis for our freedoms and liberties. The Constitution serves as the backbone of the criminal justice system, establishing the rules for what is lawful and ensuring that individual rights are protected even when individuals are suspected or accused of crimes. The ultimate goal is to create a system that is fair, just, and respects the dignity of all individuals.

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Last Modified: 05/14/2023

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