5th Amendment Supreme Court Cases

The 5th Amendment is arguably the most complex part of the original Bill of Rights, and has generated — and, most legal scholars would argue, necessitated — considerable interpretation on the part of the Supreme Court.

Blockburger v. United States (1932)

LPETTET/Getty Images

In Blockburger, the Court held that double jeopardy is not absolute. Someone who commits a single act, but breaks two separate laws in the process, may be tried separately under each charge.

Chambers v. Florida (1940)

After four black men were held under dangerous circumstances and forced to confess to murder charges under duress, they were convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court, to its credit, took issue with that. Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority:

We are not impressed by the argument that law enforcement methods such as those under review are necessary to uphold our laws. The Constitution proscribes such lawless means irrespective of the end. And this argument flouts the basic principle that all people must stand on an equality before the bar of justice in every American court. Today, as in ages past, we are not without tragic proof that the exalted power of some governments to punish manufactured crime dictatorially is the handmaid of tyranny. Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are nonconforming victims of prejudice and public excitement. Due process of law, preserved for all by our Constitution, commands that no such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death. No higher duty, no more solemn responsibility, rests upon this Court than that of translating into living law and maintaining this constitutional shield deliberately planned and inscribed for the benefit of every human being subject to our Constitution -- of whatever race, creed or persuasion.

While this ruling did not end the use of police torture against African Americans in the South, it did, at least, clarify that local law enforcement officials did so without the blessing of the U.S. Constitution.

Ashcraft v. Tennessee (1944)

Tennessee law enforcement officials broke down a suspect during a 38-hour forced interrogation, then convinced him to sign a confession. The Supreme Court again represented here by Justice Black, took exception and overturned the subsequent conviction:

The Constitution of the United States stands as a bar against the conviction of any individual in an American court by means of a coerced confession. There have been, and are now, certain foreign nations with governments dedicated to an opposite policy: governments which convict individuals with testimony obtained by police organizations possessed of an unrestrained power to seize persons suspected of crimes against the state, hold them in secret custody, and wring from them confessions by physical or mental torture. So long as the Constitution remains the basic law of our Republic, America will not have that kind of government.

Confessions obtained by torture are not as alien to U.S. history as this ruling suggests, but the Court's ruling at least made these confessions less useful for prosecutorial purposes.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

It isn't enough that confessions obtained by law enforcement officials are not coerced; they also must be obtained from suspects who know their rights. Otherwise, unscrupulous prosecutors have too much power to railroad innocent suspects. As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the Miranda majority:

Assessments of the knowledge the defendant possessed, based on information as to his age, education, intelligence, or prior contact with authorities, can never be more than speculation; a warning is a clear-cut fact. More important, whatever the background of the person interrogated, a warning at the time of the interrogation is indispensable to overcome its pressures and to insure that the individual knows he is free to exercise the privilege at that point in time.

The ruling, though controversial, has stood for nearly a half-century—and the Miranda rule has become a near-universal law enforcement practice.