Criminal Justice

Origins of American Criminal Law

Though the US Constitution has always served as the basic document guiding the US legal system, it was designed as a complex of general provisions that needed clarification and specification. Therefore, in the course of the US history, 27 amendments to the US Constitution have been designed to specify certain legal aspects of the country’s functioning.

One of amendments particularly relevant to the US criminal law is the Fourth Amendment, the one that stipulates the rules of search, arrest, and issue of a warrant in case of suspicion. According to Amendment Four, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized” (Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, 1992, p. 26).

The present Amendment is very important in the criminal law nowadays, since it sets out the principles of searches and seizures, and stipulates the conditions under which a warrant for a seizure or an arrest can be issues. The present Amendment is highly efficient in protecting the right of the US citizens and residents for the privacy of their house and property, so police officers cannot interfere with the personal lives of people only due to ideas or guesses. The privacy of personality and housing is a very stringent rule, though it has some exclusions such as the plain view, the knock-and-talk rule, probable cause, and exigent circumstances – all of these criminal procedural peculiarities help police officers abide following Amendment Four, and search people in the streets and in their houses. However, these exclusions are also explicitly set out in the criminal law, and they limit the power of police officers in terms of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Overall, the US criminal justice system functions according to the basic need to provide security of US citizens and residents, and the integrity of their property. As Gardner and Anderson (2009) indicated, the four primary goals of the criminal justice system in the US can be laid out as follows:

  1. To discourage and to deter people from committing crimes
  2. To protect society from dangerous and harmful people
  3. To punish people who have committed crimes
  4. To rehabilitate and reform people who have committed crimes (p. 46)

As one can see, the four goals of the US criminal justice system complement each other and address various stakeholders of the criminal justice process. Protection of the society from criminals involves criminal punishment, which is accomplished by means of deterrence (i.e., prison sentence) and rehabilitation of those who committed crimes for the sake of showing them the right, law-obedient direction. However, one should also keep in mind that each goal is an indispensible part of the criminal justice system, since social protection cannot be accomplished by means of only deterrence or only rehabilitation – they need to function as two sides of crime management. In addition, the punishment or rehabilitation should take into account the interests of not only society, but also the governmental authorities and criminals.

Due to the complex federal structure of the USA, the federal and state governments both have the right to make criminal laws, though the federal government can do this with a certain number of limitations. The Congress is entitled to produce laws made under the “necessary and proper” clause, made for the few territories over which the Congress has “exclusive legislation”, governing the military, and made pursuant to the 13th, 16th, and 18th Amendments to the US Constitution (Huldah, 2009). As one can see, federal power of criminal lawmaking is limited by the nationwide issues of national importance, in contrast to state criminal lawmaking that involves more specific and narrow laws for punishing felonies.

Article I of the US Constitution grants the power to make criminal laws against counterfeiting, piracies, and felonies committed on the high seas, as well as offenses against the “Laws of Nations” to the US Congress. Article III of the US Constitution also grants the US Congress power to punish the state treason by criminal law (Huldah, 2009). There is a wide variety of criminal laws created and enforced as “necessary and proper” under the US Constitutional provisions, but the occasions on which private citizens become subject to the federal criminal laws are very rare. As for the areas under the “exclusive Legislation” of the US federal government, they include the seat of the US government, forts, dock-yards, magazines, arsenals, etc. – the territories cannot exceed 10 square miles (Huldah, 2009). In these territories, the US Congress can make and apply criminal laws regarding the criminalization of murder, robbery, extortion, arson, rape, kidnapping, and other criminal offenses. As it comes from the present account, the criminal lawmaking of federal importance refers to the areas that cannot be attributed to any state’s authority. Hence, to avoid any conflicts of interest or overlapping of jurisdictions, federal criminal lawmaking power is distributed to these areas.

As for the state power to make criminal laws, the US states have a much wider array of opportunities in this aspect:

“State legislatures have the exclusive and inherent power to pass a law prohibiting and punishing any act, provided that the law does not contravene the provisions of the U.S. or state constitution. When classifying conduct as criminal, state legislatures must ensure that the classification bears some reasonable relation to the welfare and safety of society” (The Free Dictionary, 2013)

Hence, as one can see, the limit of US states’ power to issue criminal laws is virtually unlimited, though every law should be brought in compliance with the US federal legislation. The individuals can be tried in the US states according to their state legislature for the crimes they have committed in the territory of that state. The state lawmaking in terms of criminal laws is a complete system of laws that can be applied for convicting a criminal for any type of felony; nevertheless, any law adopted in any state should not contradict the federal legislation.

The concept of police power is not new in the USA; it has been formulated by the US Chief Justice John Marshall in 1827 as the complex of sovereign powers retained by states delegating a certain amount of their authority to the federal government under the US Constitution (Bell, 2007). Marshall’s successor, Chief Justice Taney, stipulated the police power of states as the power of sovereignty, the power to govern the state affairs within the limits of dominion, and the power it legislates. The police power in states also refers to the ways in which states make regulations of commerce, pass health laws, etc. The only feasible limitation to police power of states is the restrictions that may be posed by the US Constitution (Bell, 2007).

To be more precise, the police power of states is limited by higher laws. As Bell (2007) put it, “state statutes and administrative regulations must respect the rights guaranteed to the people by the state and federal constitutions” (p. 2). Moreover, the police power in every state is shared individually between the state and different political subdivisions functioning in their territories, which depends on the constitutional and statutory provisions adopted in them.


Authenticated US Government Information (1992). Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. Retrieved from

Bell, F. A. (2007). The Police Power. County and Municipal Government in North Carolina. Retrieved from

Gardner, T. J., & Anderson, T. N. (2009). Criminal Evidence: Principles and Cases. (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.

Huldah, P. (2009). What Criminal Laws are Congress Authorized To Make? Retrieved from

The Free Dictionary (2013). Criminal Law. Retrieved from

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