Evolution of the Criminal Justice System

American criminal justice system evolved, and will examine three cases, judged by the Supreme Court, which have impacted individual rights as opposed to public order.

Evolution of the Criminal Justice System

Early American colonizers brought with them the common law of the English, and established this as the crime justice system for America. This common law was influenced by the Catholic Church, and founded on the principle of guilty mind or Mens Reas. The practices were characterized by tremendous irony, as a number of English colonists had, in fact, fled their country for escaping religious persecution. These colonial laws were the status quo in America until a reform in the crime justice system was advocated by William Penn, before the start of the American Revolution. Penn — a Quaker — supported the need for implementation of more humane legal practices, including the institution of acceptable housing for prisoners. Following the culmination of the Revolutionary War, the American Constitution was established as the supreme document over every citizen’s equal freedoms and rights. Innocent individuals now enjoyed enhanced protections, prisons grew rapidly in number, and some jurisdictions eliminated physical punishment entirely (The Evolution of the American Justice System — University of Cinicinnati, n.d.). The next wave of disturbance and revolution in America came with the American Civil War and Reconstruction (between 1850 and 1877), owing to differences between Northern and Southern states with regard to prisoner treatment (a number of prisoners were freed African slaves) and equal rights of citizens. The country’s focus quickly shifted, with the arrival of a new wave of immigrants. An escalation in social issues was witnessed and the “rehabilitation” concept established. President Roosevelt played a prominent role in advocating reforms during the early part of the 20th century; he put numerous progressive ideas in motion. This era witnessed the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other important law enforcement organizations and agencies, the establishment of new sentencing regulations, and the creation of a justice system for juvenile offenders. The crime justice system of the U.S. continued evolving throughout the succeeding key phases of American history, namely, the First World War, the 1929-39 Great Depression, Prohibition and Second World War. The festive era following the two wars transformed once again into turbulence, with drug use, race riots, and war protests coming to the forefront during the sixties and seventies. The crime justice system responded through a counterattack and reversion to tougher convict sentences. The overall system witnessed expansion.

Supreme Court Cases

In the United States v. Banks case, police officials equipped with a search warrant arrived at the defendant’s residence to search for and seize drugs. They announced themselves, rapped on his front door loud enough that officers covering the apartment’s back door could hear it, and broke into the apartment when they received no response for 15-20 seconds (Significant Supreme Court decisions affecting law enforcement, 2004). The defendant claimed he was in the shower; he couldn’t hear anything until his door crashed in. The Appellate Court (Ninth Circuit) ruled, through the use of a four-element scheme to vet knock-and-announce entrances, that no exigent condition surrounded the entry, and forced entries by means of property destruction are only allowed if a bigger time lapse ensues, or if the resident explicitly refuses admittance. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did not agree to this.

Another case taken up for discussion is Illinois v. Lidster. For aiding this investigation into a hit-and-run accident which resulted in death, local police, a week following the mishap, at roughly the very same place and time of the accident, erected a highway police checkpoint for obtaining more information from bystanders regarding the incident. The highway was partly blocked by police vehicles with their flashing lights left on, and traffic was forced to come to a stop. This resulted in roughly fifteen automobiles in every lane being held up (Significant Supreme Court decisions affecting law enforcement, 2004). Cars that drew up before the police checkpoint were stopped for a span of 10-15 seconds, in which officers asked occupants/drivers whether they were witness to any accident at roughly the same time in the last weekend. Each driver was handed a flyer that stated “ALERT … FATAL HIT AND RUN ACCIDENT,” when pulling away. It also comprised of a request to assist in identification of the individual and automobile responsible for killing the unfortunate bicyclist (aged 70 years). Lidster swerved the minivan he was driving when approaching the checkpoint, and nearly hit an officer. The officers attested to smelling alcohol on the man’s breath. Thus, he was directed to a side lane, where he was tested for sobriety and subsequently arrested. Lidster was put on trial and found guilty of drunk driving, by Illinois State’s court. The defendant challenged the verdict, on the premise that the initial stopping of his car by police went against the 4th Amendment, as police didn’t have a specific suspicion for asking him to pull over.

In the United States v. Flores-Montano case, South California border crossing official stopped Flores-Montano and asked him to step out of his vehicle, which was driven over to a station for secondary inspection. His gas tank was tapped upon by a customs official, who felt it sounded as though something solid was in it (Significant Supreme Court decisions affecting law enforcement, 2004). The tank’s removal was ordered and the officials summoned a contract mechanic to do so. Roughly eighty-one pounds of drugs (marijuana) was found inside. Flores-Montano was charged with drug possession, and moved for suppressing evidence based on a Ninth Circuit court rule, which requires justified suspicion before removing a vehicle’s gas tank. However, the Court rejected this rule and the defendant’s argument that, in his vehicle’s gas tank, he reasonably expected privacy. The Court ruled that border officials’ authority of carrying out suspicionless inspections includes an authority of removing, disassembling, and reassembling the fuel tanks of vehicles. In some cases, property searches are so very destructive that a different outcome is necessitated, but this wasn’t such a case.


Higginbotham. (2004). AELE’s Home Page. Significant Supreme Court decisions affecting law enforcement. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://www.aele.org/higginbotham-fapa04.html

(n.d.). Online Master’s in Criminal Justice Degree — University of Cincinnati. The Evolution of the American Justice System — University of Cinicinnati. Retrieved March 24, 2016, from http://cjonline.uc.edu/resources/criminal-justice-research/the-evolution-of-the-american-justice-system/

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