The first ten amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights. They contain many of the most fundamental rights enjoyed by the American people.
The First Amendment states that Congress has no authority to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” It further states that Congress can do nothing to restrict freedom of speech or freedom of press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government.
The Second Amendment deals with the right to bear arms, but is written in the context of bearing arms as part of a regulated militia.
The Third Amendment states that the government cannot, in time of peace, quarter soldiers in a private home without the consent of the owner. In time of war, the government may only do so in a manner prescribed by law.
The Fourth Amendment deals with unreasonable searches. It expressly states that people shall be secure in their persons, houses, and papers from unreasonable searches and seizures by governmental authorities. It further states that search warrants may be issued only upon a finding of probable cause. That means there must be a determination made, based upon substantial, believable evidence, that the person to be searched has committed a crime or the place to be searched contains evidence of a crime.
The Fifth Amendment defines the concept known as double jeopardy, which means that a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. That same Amendment further sets forth the right against selfincrimination—that a person cannot be made to testify against him- or herself. This Amendment also contains the foundation of the Due Process Clause, which states that a person cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.
Due process is a critical concept to our entire legal system. It requires two things:
1. a person must be given notice of the charges or claims made against him or her and
2. a person must be given an opportunity to answer those charges or claims before he or she can be deprived of life, liberty, or property.
The Sixth Amendment provides for the right to a speedy trial and the right to a jury trial in a criminal proceeding. This Amendment further sets forth the right to confrontation in a criminal case, meaning that a person accused of a crime has the right:
* to confront the witness who is making the claim against him or her;
* to compel witnesses in his or her favor to appear in court and give testimony; and,
* to be represented by a competent lawyer in the defense of that criminal charge.
The Seventh Amendment preserves the right to have a jury trial in certain civil cases.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and further disallows punishment that is deemed to be cruel and unusual. This Amendment has been used to argue against capital punishment and other forms of punishment over the years.
The Ninth Amendment states that just because certain rights are set forth in the Constitution does not mean they are the only rights people have. That is to say, whatever other rights the people have, they still retain.
The Tenth Amendment limits the power of the federal government by stating that powers not delegated to the United States Government by the Constitution and not prohibited by the Constitution to the states are expressly reserved to the states or to the people. The initial framers of the Constitution viewed the U.S. Government as a government of limited authority. Whatever authority was not placed in the United States Government rested with the states.