How does one review case law?
September 8, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

How does one review case law?

In a criminal case in state district court, I would imagine review case law would be very helpful. What I mean is, if you could review a case where an acquittal was acquired for similar charges to the case you are currently looking at, that would seem very helpful. I am sure this is something lawyers do all the time, for example when they are showing precedent, etc.

How do lawyers access this information to review case law?
posted by doomtop to Law & Government (18 answers total)
Most lawyers will use a commercial service such as Lexis or Westlaw. Cheaper alternatives such as Loislaw or Findlaw are available. Some states (such as Ohio) make caselaw databases freely accessible (although YMMV for easy access to the databases).

Older lawyers and judges still slog through case books. There are summaries and finding aids and all sorts of pre-database dead-tree stuff, which often go totally unused by baby lawyers these days (because we know how to run database searches, natch).

Some law libraries offer free Lexis/Westlaw access. Law librarians can probably show you the basics -- that's what they're there for.

This is probably outside the scope of your question, but remember -- all precedent is not created equal.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:26 AM on September 8, 2009

Acquittals and convictions are done at the "trial court" level. State trial court judges rarely write opinions (and particularly not in criminal cases). So there are no opinions to be read on that level. Somewhere there is data but it is usually not very accessible and is not in a form that can be readily analyzed. (I *hope* this changes in the next few years.) For example, you might be able to access a county court web site and type in a name and see the result of a case, but you wouldn't be able to type in the crime or aggregate results.

Sometimes (I imagine, speculative) district attorney or public defender offices might do their own little reviews of the outcomes of these cases, but those would be internal. Certainly district attorneys and public defenders have an experiential sense of how certain cases turn out (which is in part how they advise clients).

There are opinions sometimes when a person appeals a conviction. Then the appellate court may write an opinion. This is usually about the evidentiary rulings (evidence that was let in or not let in), jury instructions, sentencing, and whether there was sufficient evidence. These opinions are available on Westlaw or LEXIS and sometimes on FindLaw. If you are going to try to do this using books, you could look in the annotations at the end of the criminal code section at issue (the section describing the crime) or you could look in the West digest for your state. (A law librarian will direct you if you can describe that much.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:36 AM on September 8, 2009

If you live in or near a big city, your local public library probably has a law section with access to Lexis or Westlaw, so you don't need a specialized law library.
posted by zachlipton at 8:36 AM on September 8, 2009

Previous posters already covered this thoroughly, but I'd just add that google can be a resource as well. If you know the case name you're looking for you can often find a full text of the case out there without having to pay. You can also sometimes find cases just through google searches such as: [state], case, [subject matter].

Once you find a case or two on point, those cases tend to reference other cases that may lead to more cases.
posted by saladpants at 8:44 AM on September 8, 2009

Thanks for the replies. I guess I am just a bit confused about it.

When I look at something like Lexis, they have myriad different services, many look to be for practice management, etc. I am looking for something that is just used to look up previous cases in a specific state district court to see case law on how certain circumstances have been handled in the past. Is there anything specific like that?
posted by doomtop at 8:48 AM on September 8, 2009

While I am a great believer in pro se litigation (that is, self advocacy of a litigant him/herself without the aid of a lawyer), I would add, OP, that if you are proposing to represent yourself in a criminal matter, you should know that finding favorable precedents and distinguishing unfavorable precedents is, in some ways, the most challenging part of any lawyer's job. It is not simply a matter of pulling up a database and instantly finding a precedent case just like yours--it can be hours (days, weeks) of laborious research and endless refinement of search queries.

While it is not beyond anyone's capacity, with something as potentially high stakes as a criminal matter, it might be best to involve an experienced criminal defense attorney/public defender.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:55 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it's a question like, how would a court in the Southern District of New York look at the exigent circumstances exception in a warrant, you would research the case law in LexisNexis or WestLaw using a subscription bought by your firm or organization.

If it's a question like, how often does someone caught with a dimebag of marijuana get acquitted or what type of pleas do they get, you would ask your colleagues in the Public Defenders Office or other private defense attorneys.

Neither source of knowledge is readily open to non-lawyers.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 9:04 AM on September 8, 2009

Most courts I have been to have a law library open to the public.

However, the historical data trends you are looking for probably are not available.

If you were arrested and charged with, say, sale of stolen property which is section XXX of the State Penal Code, one way to get more information about what must be proven with that, is to go to the law library and find what is called an Annotated Criminal Code. When you turn to section XXX, it will cite the provision. And then after the rule, there will usually be short snippets about what appellate courts have said about the code (e.g, "State must prove that the offender had actual knowledge the property was stolen. Doe v. State, 333 NE3d 444"). If you want further information, then you can go to the reporters which are the books numbered 333 of the NE3d and then turn to page 444 and you can read what the courts have said about that rule. You might then go to court and say, "As the court said in Doe v. State, the state must prove I had actual knowledge the property was stolen at the time of transfer and the state has not proven that." If this anything remotely serious as far as criminal matters go, you attorney will know how to do this.

The information you have given is vary vague, so its hard to really answer your question. But that is generally one way how one might go about finding out what has to be proven to convict someone of a particular statute.

I should note, again, if this serious, you need an attorney. If it is not, and we are talking about running a stop sign or something, then you probably are not going to find much information because traffic violations don't make it to the appellate courts, typically.
posted by dios at 9:18 AM on September 8, 2009

ClaudiaCenter is right -- there's really no way to review trial court material. Nevertheless, you can check your jurisdiction's website just in case.

What you need are opinions from courts of appeal explaining what the trial court did and then either affirming or reversing what happened. It sounds like you want an appellate opinion affirming a trial court that acquitted someone. This might be hard to find, because that would mean that the state would have lost at trial and appealed, which is less usual than a defendant appealing.

Try a free database like They have a limited selection of appellate courts. You can look at examples outside of your jurisdiction, but whatever you find will not be precedent.

My strongest recommendation would be to take yourself to the nearest law school and ask what library services are open to the public. Most law schools allow the public to have at least some access to published case law, kept in hardbound books. There is a way to find whatever you're looking for in the books, and an in-person law librarian will show you exactly how to do it.
posted by motsque at 9:21 AM on September 8, 2009

To try to be more specific of what I am looking for, as an example, I would want to see the results of cases where the defendant plead not guilty in my local county's district (lower) court for a specific charge (both acquittals and convictions).

For example, I might want to research all local cases of bribery and how the case played out in court.

It sounds like maybe this is not possible?
posted by doomtop at 9:28 AM on September 8, 2009

That's possible, but very difficult and more on the order of a large-scale sociological study than what a lawyer would normally do in the course of practice. lockestockbarrel has it right about asking other lawyers -- public defenders, private criminal defense attorneys, or even back-channel communications with a friend in the DA's office are how a lawyer would typically find out what was the usual outcome for a certain set of circumstances.
posted by katemonster at 9:34 AM on September 8, 2009

The information you are looking for probably does not exist. Someone with a lot of experience in that particular county may be able to give you a good guesstimate, but that kind of data is not really what lawyers look at and therefore there is no market for that data.

"Case law" refers to appellate level opinions that have precedential or instructive value. It does not refer to district court results.

You could probably find out the sentencing guidelines for the particular crime. And you could probably find out the conviction rates generally for the local DA. The problem is that extrapolating from there to get an expected value of likelihood conviction and severity of crime isn't useful or possible because criminal cases are so entirely fact dependent. For instance--just making stuff up---there might be a 90% conviction rate for bribery but in each of those cases there was fact X and you do not have fact X in your case, which renders the conviction rate meaningless in your case.

Really, to find out what is likely to happen, your best bet is to speak to an attorney in your county who has experience with these kinds of cases.
posted by dios at 9:40 AM on September 8, 2009

You are asking for something a little different then. It may or may not be possible, depending on the type of access you can get to records in that court and whether someone is wiling to help you. It would also take a long time. Here's what I would do.

1. Pick a time frame, say 2002-2007 (anything more recent and you risk having some cases still open).

2. See if there is public access to indictments/informations or other charging documents. The kind of charging document you need to access will depend on where you are, and you will need a local prosecutor or defense attorney or related paralegal or other staff to explain it to you.

3. Look through those charging documents for the relevant charge and note the case number for each case containing the relevant charge. This will require an index of indictments, which may not exist.

4. Look up the public file for each case number containing the relevant charge. Not all information is publicly available but by law a lot is. If the courthouse is in the 21st century you should be able to do this online. Very few are.

5. In each file you should be able to find the judge's order accepting a plea or entering a conviction, and then a separate order (usually) with the sentence. Conviction and sentence are often weeks or months apart.

I should note that I am not and have never been involved in criminal law, especially at the state or local level. So I'm just telling you how I would try to proceed, not what will necessarily work. In any event, it is imperative that you make good friends with someone in the courthouse that can show you how to access all the info.
posted by ohio at 9:44 AM on September 8, 2009

Two cases with the same facts might come out differently. At the trial level judges and especially juries have a lot of discretion. Two different juries might hear the same testimony, and one believes it and decides to convict, and the other doesn't believe it and decides to acquit.

This kind of difference in outcome is not enough to give rise to an appeal. You can only appeal if there has been a *legal* error: evidence admitted or not in a way it shouldn't have been, improper jury instructions, etc.

In the vast majority of cases, on appeal, it's assumed that the facts have already been established. Trial courts are the places where the "facts" of a case are decided, rightly or wrongly, and only in really egregious situations is that going to be upset.

In most criminal cases, there's not really a question of what the law is, just what the facts are. This is why appeals sometimes seem tangential to the main point of whether the guy did it.
posted by yesno at 9:54 AM on September 8, 2009

According to this web site (if you are interested in Vermont trial courts), detailed information is not available on line for criminal matters. (Even if it were available, my experience is that state court web sites typically only allow searches for party name or case number.)
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:12 AM on September 8, 2009

You're not going to find what you seek in the case law reports. First, I really doubt that your state's trial courts issue written opinions for general distribution, which is what case law reports are. Further, I'm not sure that the information you seek is generally available at all, that it would require going through hundreds if not thousands of individual cases (after you've pre-sorted to look only at ones with a particular charge involved, as in your example, bribery) and seeing how each one played out. And then if you got that information, I doubt how much good it would do you. I realize that it's possible to do some sort of statistical analysis of law, just as with anything else, but given the extensive range of possibilities why any particular defendant would plead not guilty, the varying trial strategies of counsel, and the variety of ways each case would play out (just for one example, a defendant would plead not guilty at arraignment but eventually accept a plea bargain on the eve of trial, or even after closing arguments while the jury's deliberating-- how do you classify that one?), I'm not at all sure that you'd have any worthwhile information.

The best thing to do for any kind of criminal charge is to suck it up and hire a criminal law specialist* with specific experience in this type of charge (it could be broken down into drug offenses, non-drug violent offenses, and white-collar crime), expect that it will cost a Lot of Money to hire this person (people routinely take out second mortgages and/or ask family members to help pay for it), and trust his/her experience. At some point, this person may advise you to take a plea bargain because (a) it's the best outcome you're likely going to get, and (b) once you've served your sentence, you can go on with the rest of your life-- and how much is, say five years of your life worth?

*the exception is if the offense and the trial take place in a small town. In that case, unless the offense is on the order of capital murder, hire the best local lawyer who does criminal work. You're looking for competence in the law, knowledge of the environment, and real-life experience and observation in how similar cases have played out.
posted by missouri_lawyer at 10:19 AM on September 8, 2009

What Admiral Haddock said -- researching caselaw is not something for the faint of heart. (Nor, for that matter, is reading opinions.) Most law schools have lawyering classes where students pick up this skill over several months of work...
posted by paultopia at 10:48 AM on September 8, 2009

The OP originally asked about "case law" but clarified that he's really looking for aggregate information regarding trial court results for similar offenses.

Most "case law" is written by appellate courts. There are some federal district judges that publish a lot of opinions, and back when I practiced in Ohio I remembered running into one or two state-court trial judges that wanted their opinions published. But the vast, vast majority of trial court results do NOT result in published opinions.

To the best of my knowledge, information regarding aggregate conviction rates for particular offenses is NOT publicly available. This information MIGHT be tracked by prosecutors or public defenders' offices (but I kind of doubt it). These offices are likely to have a vested interest in tracking results for high-profile crimes (such as homicide), but even then results would likely vary greatly (and it would all be internal). Attorneys working in this field are likely to have lots of anecdotal information, but rigorous statistical summaries are probably not available.

Think of it this way: On the federal level, there's been lots of press regarding conviction for "terrorism related" offenses. But defining precisely what a "terrorism related" offense is reveals that there's lots of flex in the definition and the numbers are pretty much useless.

Likewise, say you have someone being prosecuted for first-degree murder, but the jury returns a verdict only for voluntary manslaughter. Does that count as an unsuccessful homicide prosecution? Or a successful manslaughter conviction? Tallying up the wins and losses is tough, especially when you have offenses being pled down to lesser levels.

In some big cities, there are "verdict reporter" services that show jury verdicts in CIVIL cases. There are even databases that show average verdicts and reported settlements for various kinds of injuries. I was always wary about relying on the averages because of the huge confirmation bias (i.e., people would have a bias towards reporting the 'good' settlements and verdicts). But that's purely on the civil side of things.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:59 AM on September 8, 2009

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