Pretrial Detention

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Pretrial detention involves holding a defendant in custody before trial when they have been charged with a crime. It’s applied in cases where the defendant poses a flight risk, may tamper with witnesses, or is considered a danger to the community (18 U.S.C. § 3142, 2020). This section explores pretrial detention in-depth, outlining its constitutional considerations and limits.

Constitutional Limitations on Pretrial Detention

The constitutional limits of pretrial detention largely stem from the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against excessive bail and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Let’s examine three Supreme Court cases that clarify these principles.

United States v. Salerno (1987)

United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987), is a landmark case exploring pretrial detention.

The Facts: Anthony Salerno, an alleged mob boss, was detained before trial under the Bail Reform Act of 1984. He challenged his detention, arguing it violated the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Bail Clause and the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

Legal Issue: The question was whether the Bail Reform Act’s provisions for pretrial detention on the basis of future dangerousness were constitutionally permissible.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court upheld the Act, affirming Salerno’s detention.

Rationale: The Court concluded that the government’s regulatory interest in community safety can, in some circumstances, outweigh an individual’s liberty interest, given the Act’s careful procedural protections (United States v. Salerno, 1987).

Stack v. Boyle (1951)

Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1 (1951), provided guidance on the setting of bail amounts.

The Facts: Twelve defendants challenged their bail amounts as excessively high.

Legal Issue: The issue was whether the high bail set was constitutionally excessive.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court ruled the bail was excessive.

Rationale: The Court established that bail should not be used as a means of pretrial detention. It should be set at a level that reasonably assures the defendant’s presence at trial, not at a level that ensures detention (Stack v. Boyle, 1951).

Bell v. Wolfish (1979)

Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979), assessed the conditions of pretrial detention.

The Facts: Inmates of the Metropolitan Correctional Center challenged the institution’s conditions and practices.

Legal Issue: The Court had to decide if certain conditions and practices amounted to punishment without due process.

Court’s Decision: The Supreme Court held the practices didn’t violate the Constitution.

Rationale: The Court argued that not all disabilities imposed during pretrial detention amount to punishment in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Bell v. Wolfish, 1979).


Pretrial detention is a delicate balancing act between safeguarding the community and preserving individual rights. The Supreme Court rulings in United States v. Salerno, Stack v. Boyle, and Bell v. Wolfish provide vital guidelines for the constitutionally permissible limits of pretrial detention. Understanding these rulings helps clarify the balance between individual liberties and public safety.


18 U.S.C. § 3142 (2020).

United States v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739 (1987).

Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1 (1951).

Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).


Modification History

File Created:  08/08/2018

Last Modified:  07/23/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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