Crimes and Punishments: Teach the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments

This is the third post in our four-part Teaching the Constitution series of blogs about U.S. Supreme Court cases.

Search warrants. Miranda rights. Cruel and unusual punishment. We see and hear these terms brought up all the time in the news media and in popular movies and TV shows. But how much do our students really understand what they mean? At the very least, it is important to note that they pertain to some of the most fundamental rights that Americans have. These rights, as established in the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, are relevant to citizens of all ages.   

The Fourth Amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures of individuals and property. The amendment was created under the principle that any citizen may be accused of a crime at some point and should therefore be provided protections under the law. The key issue, of course, is what constitutes “unreasonable.”  

The table below spotlights two U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the Fourth Amendment that relate specifically to students and schools and can be discussed in your classroom. They address the constitutionality of whether school officials can search a student’s belongings for unlawful materials, and whether high-school athletes can be drug-tested randomly.

The Fifth Amendment says U.S. citizens cannot be forced to testify against themselves during a criminal trial. The government must present witnesses and evidence to prove that the accused person committed the crime. The famous “Miranda warning” was created as the result of a 1966 case about the Fifth Amendment, in which the U.S. Supreme Court established that a person arrested for a crime must be clearly informed that he or she has the right to remain silent (and therefore not say anything that could be used against him or her in court), and the right to consult with a lawyer.

The table below addresses the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that led to the establishment of the Miranda warning.  

The Eighth Amendment limits the penalties that can be imposed by the criminal justice system on someone accused or convicted of a crime. For example, a person cannot be required to pay an excessive amount of money for bail. The amendment also forbids “cruel and unusual punishments.”

However, the Constitution is not specific on what qualifies as “excessive” or “cruel and unusual.” It is up to the courts to determine exactly what is and what is not allowed under the law. Currently, 30 states authorize the death penalty, but there are many debates throughout the country over whether it should be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment.

The table below highlights three U.S. Supreme Court cases that focus on the Eighth Amendment—specifically the topic of cruel and unusual punishment with regard to students under the age of 18.

All of these cases, and the issues relating to them, should inspire robust conversations and debates amongst your students. Download the accompanying student handout to explore these topics.

Suggested Activity: 

  1. Break your class into small groups. Have each group select a case from the handout.
  2. Have students research the background, arguments, decision, and how the case impacts today’s students.
  3. Students should present their research to the class in a format of their choosing—a trifold exhibit, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, etc. Or, set up your classroom like courtroom and have students role-play as attorneys to argue their points.

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Learn more about HMH Social Studies, including the Judicial Inquiries program for middle and high school students to study 25 landmark Supreme Court cases that continue to impact their lives.