Each semester as I get to the portion of my class when I talk about landmark cases I see my students automatically groan, yawn, fall asleep, etc. I’m not a lawyer—nor do I try to be—as are many criminal justice instructors. However, cases are still important in almost every single criminal justice course, including your 101!
How do we make this slightly more enjoyable?
I don’t treat the cases as cases. I treat them as storytelling.
Don’t place the notes of the case on the board. Write the name of the case on the board or your PowerPoint and NOTHING ELSE. For example, one of my favorites in Mapp v. Ohio.
On the screen, all my students see is Mapp v. Ohio. and maybe a picture.
I walk to the front of the class and even say “Now, let me tell you a story.” I want them to listen to me—not write the notes that are behind me on the board! This is crucial.
Here’s my story—
This woman right here is Dollree Mapp. In May of 1957 three officers showed up at Dollree’s house in Cleveland, Ohio. They were not looking for her, they were looking for a man to ask about a bombing and wanted to come into her house to look for him. Ms. Mapp stood up for herself and did not let the officers in her home. Instead, she asked for a warrant, which they could not produce. The officers left and soon returned with more officers who showed her a piece of paper they claimed to be a search warrant. Dollree knew better, but when she took the paper from them they quickly handcuffed her and searched her entire house looking for the man to question.
They eventually find their way to the basement, where they found some naughty materials. The officers arrested Dollree (even though she claimed the pornography wasn’t hers) and she was charged and convicted of obscenity. Eventually, her case made it all the way to the supreme court because it seemed to question first amendment rights, ya know, porn and all? However, in June 1961 the justices ruled that this was not a first amendment issue, but a fourth amendment issue. The justices found that the materials had been obtained illegally by police and therefore could not be used to prosecutor Ms. Mapp in state court. This is a landmark decision that is still referred to today. “
The key is to make sure it isn’t boring! By telling the circumstances of the case and putting a face to the name my students also retain the information for other classes! You can also talk about other issues that come up—for this case we have race relations, gender, first amendment, the difference between an arrest and a search warrant, etc.
Come prepared to answer some question when you present your cases as stories because your students will be curious. And you most likely won’t have time to do this for all the cases you must discuss. But, I promise if you do it for the important ones—they will remember!