Bill of Rights: Real Life Scenarios

Supreme Court Decisions



New Jersey v. T.L.O, 1985


Subject(s):  Civil Rights—Juveniles


Question Presented:  Did the search violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?


Conclusion:  No. Citing the peculiarities associated with searches on school grounds, the Court abandoned its requirement that searches be conducted only when a "probable cause" exists that an individual has violated the law. The Court used a less strict standard of "reasonableness" to conclude that the search did not violate the Constitution. The presence of rolling papers in the purse gave rise to a reasonable suspicion in the principal's mind that T.L.O. may have been carrying drugs, thus, justifying a more thorough search of the purse.



Furman v. Georgia, 1972


Subject(s):  Criminal Procedure, Cruel and Unusual Punishment, Death Penalty


Question Presented:  Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?


Conclusion:  Yes. The Court's opinion held that the imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution. In over two hundred pages of concurrence and dissents, the justices articulated their views on this controversial subject. Only Justices Brennan and Marshall believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional in all instances. Other concurrences focused on the arbitrary nature with which death sentences have been imposed, often indicating a racial bias against black defendants. The Court's decision forced states and the national legislature to rethink their statutes for capital offenses to assure that the death penalty would not be administered in a capricious or discriminatory manner.



Veronia School District v. Acton, 1995


Subject(s):  Privacy


Question Presented:  Does random drug testing of high school athletes violate the reasonable search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment?


Conclusion:  No. The reasonableness of a search is judged by "balancing the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the promotion of legitimate governmental interests." In the case of high school athletes who are under State supervision during school hours, they are subject to greater control than over free adults. The privacy interests compromised by urine samples are negligible since the conditions of collection are similar to public restrooms, and the results are viewed only by limited authorities. Furthermore, the governmental concern over the safety of minors under their supervision overrides the minimal, if any, intrusion in student-athletes' privacy.

Harmelin v. Michigan, 1991


Subject(s):  Criminal Procedure, Cruel and Unusual Punishment


Question Presented:  Is a statutorily mandated sentence a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishments?


Conclusion:  No. The Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, held that since the Eighth Amendment does not contain a proportionality guarantee, the determination of whether a punishment is "cruel and unusual" is not made with reference to the particular offense. Moreover, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause protects against unusual methods of punishment, not necessarily cruel ones. As such, while Harmelin's life sentence may have been cruel, it was not constitutionally unusual or unprecedented.



Miranda v. Arizona, 1966


Subject(s):  Criminal Procedure, Miranda Warnings


Question Presented:  Does the police practice of interrogating individuals without notifying them of their right to counsel and their protection against self-incrimination violate the Fifth Amendment?


Conclusion:  The Court held that prosecutors could not use statements stemming from custodial interrogation of defendants unless they demonstrated the use of procedural safeguards "effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination." The Court noted that "the modern practice of in-custody interrogation is psychologically rather than physically oriented" and that "the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition." The Court specifically outlined the necessary aspects of police warnings to suspects, including warnings of the right to remain silent and the right to have counsel present during interrogations.



Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969


Subject(s):  First Amendment


Question Presented:  Does a rule against wearing the armbands in public school, as a form of protest, violate the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections?


Conclusion:  The wearing of armbands was "closely akin to 'pure speech'" and protected by the First Amendment. School environments imply limitations on free expression, but here the principals lacked justification for imposing any such limits.  The principals had failed to show that the forbidden conduct would substantially interfere with appropriate school discipline.








Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963


Subject(s):  Criminal Procedure, Right to Counsel


Question Presented:  Did the state court's failure to appoint counsel for Gideon violate his right to a fair trial and due process of law as protected by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments?


Conclusion:  In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that Gideon had a right to be represented by a court-appointed attorney and, in doing so, overruled its 1942 decision of Betts v. Brady. In this case the Court found that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel was a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial, which should be made applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Black called it an "obvious truth" that a fair trial for a poor defendant could not be guaranteed without the assistance of counsel. Those familiar with the American system of justice, commented Black, recognized that "lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries."



Powell v. Alabama, 1932


Subject(s):  Due Process, Right to Counsel


Question Presented:  Did the trials violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


Conclusion:  Yes. The Court held that the trials denied due process because the defendants were not given reasonable time and opportunity to secure counsel in their defense. Though Justice George Sutherland did not rest the Court holding on the right-to-counsel guarantee of the Sixth Amendment, he repeatedly implicated that guarantee. This case was an early example of national constitutional protection in the field of criminal justice.