Today we have a guest post from Andre Audette, assistant professor of political science at Monmouth College. He can be reached at aaudette [at] monmouthcollege [dot] edu.
It’s about time that I come clean publicly: last semester I was arrested not once, but twice, at the start of class. My crime? Teaching constitutional law.
Students in my Civil Liberties course were wrapping up a unit on criminal procedure, which includes case law involving proper arrests and interrogations. To give them firsthand experience, I asked for two volunteers to arrest me and then achieve a conviction without using any unconstitutional evidence.
Before class started, I discretely asked one student to watch over my snack-sized bag of “drugs” (oregano). At the time of my arrest I was handcuffed (using fake handcuffs that were easy to get out of) and brought over to the interrogation room where I was placed under a portable clip lamp I had concealed in a canvas bag.
Throughout the simulation I did not make the arrest easy. I admitted to the crime before my rights were read, after which I vigorously denied the charges. I pretended not to understand my rights while accusing the officers of violating them, signed the rights waiver under a pseudonym, asked for and then rescinded my request for a lawyer, and pretended to be under the influence of mind-altering substances. Each of these represents one of the surprisingly common complications in criminal procedure.
After the simulation concluded, I asked the class to determine which evidence could be used against me in a court of law. The results were . . . murky. The “easy” constitutional interpretation of Miranda v. Arizona began to look a lot more difficult.
Students responded positively to the experience and gladly arrested me again on the last day of class. This time I played an intelligent and peaceful extraterrestrial who had been living in the United States for many years, a scenario that asked students to extend the logic of Plyler v. Doe, a case about the children of undocumented immigrants. Students acted as a jury to determine whether I, as an extraterrestrial, could be tried under a military tribunal, executed, and denied admission to law school despite being otherwise qualified. The exercise served as a review of the semester and a reminder that constitutional rights come from cases that push the boundaries of the law.
This simulation requires that the instructor cede a great deal of control to students in a way that may not be comfortable or even advisable for everyone. The professor should have a rapport with the students beforehand. The number of students in the class and its physical location is another consideration.
But my students reported that the exercise gave them a new understanding of what can otherwise be dry and unapproachable legal reading. Anecdotally students seemed more attuned to the complexities and nuances of constitutional law in their exams and hypothetical case briefs after the simulation than they were before. And in their writing they were able to wade deeper into legal reasoning by analogy rather than a strict factual application of precedent. Students also noted in their course evaluations that they learned that the law is not as straightforward as they thought.
Thus, the exercise appeared to have achieved my goal of demonstrating that the law is not as cut-and-dried as students usually assume, and that most constitutional law is advanced through these tough cases, if it is ever settled at all.