Finding Support Using Legal Research

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As discussed, our first step is to dissect the wording of the violation you are charged with to see if you committed every element of the offense. If, after doing this, you are not certain you can challenge the law on this ground, there are further steps you can take to build a strong defense. The key skill to build your defense is knowing how to research and understand the laws that apply to the particular legal problem. Fortunately, legal research isn't difficult; you certainly don't need a law degree to do it. The techniques needed for even fairly sophisticated legal research on traffic tickets can be learned in several hours. An excellent tool for helping you do this is the book Legal Research: How to Find & Understand the Law, by Steve Elias and the editors of Nolo. Below I'll briefly cover several key research techniques.

Finding Case Decisions

Once a law is written, judges use real-life situations to interpret it. Sometimes these decisions (called cases) will make a huge difference to your situation. For example, in all states, speeding for the purpose of being a show-off is a crime called "exhibition of speed." But an appeals court in California expanded the law to include screeching a car's tires (or burning rubber) to impress listeners who can't necessarily see you. This unusual expansion of the words "exhibition of speed" is something you would never know by reading the law alone.

In another example, Ohio's speeding law says you must drive at a "reasonable and prudent" speed. But it does not say whether it is legal to drive over the posted speed limit. A state appeals court ruled, however, that the wording of the law allowed motorists to drive above the posted speed if they are being "reasonable and prudent." Without reading the appeals court decision, the average person would not know that it was legal to drive above the posted speed limit in Ohio.

Don't waste time researching a law that is simple and clear. If you are charged with failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign, you probably do not need to research case law. Reading the law itself is probably enough. It's usually a pretty clear law and unlikely to have been changed through court decisions. On the other hand, if the law you're charged under is a bit more complex, case law research can help you answer questions that the statutes or laws themselves don't address. For example, this could be true in a case involving a "presumed" speed law where your right to see a copy of the officer's notes in advance of the trial has been denied.

To learn more about how a law has been interpreted, look for your state's annotated codes. Annotated codes are a set of laws that contain summaries of court decisions beneath each entry.

The simplest way to find annotated 
codes is through the Internet. Private Internet services such as LexisNexis (www
.lexisnexis.com), Versuslaw (www.versuslaw
.com), and FindLaw (www.findlaw.com) provide annotated codes—as well as case decisions—but you'll have to pay a fee to access them. (We recommend Versuslaw, as it is the least expensive service, and you can use your credit card to pay for services.) You may also be able to find case law regarding certain types of motor vehicle statues by using an Internet search engine such as Google.

You can also find actual hard copy sets of annotated laws in law libraries, at publicly funded law schools, at principal county courthouses (usually open to the public), and at private law schools where the public is sometimes allowed access. Some larger public libraries also stock sets of annotated codes. Annotated codes are indexed by topic and are kept up to date each year with paperback supplements (called "pocket parts"), located in a replaceable pocket in the front or back cover of each volume. If you decide to go to the library to look up the codes, don't forget to look through these pocket parts for any law changes or case decisions occurring since the hardcover volume was printed.

Analyzing Court Decisions

Once you find the law you are accused of violating in the annotated law books, skim the brief summaries of the court decisions that interpret the law. Look first for relatively recent cases that involve situations similar to yours where a judge ruled in favor of the defendant because of some circumstances that you, too, might be able to prove. Assuming you find a summary that you think might apply to you, you'll need to read the court's full written opinion to see if it really makes a point that helps you beat your ticket.

Make note of the "citation" for the relevant case. This consists of a shorthand identification of the page, volume, and set of law books where the decision or case can be found. (See "How Citations Work," below.) In most states, there are two different sets of volumes of books containing the court decisions, and you'll be given a citation to each, one after the other. It makes no difference which one you use.

If you find annotations to several cases that fit your facts, look first at the most recent one (newer cases often reinterpret or supersede older ones) decided by your state's highest court (called the supreme court in every state except New York and Maryland). Cases from your state's intermediate level appeals courts are valid unless overruled by that state's supreme court.

Finally, you should look at the actual case (not just the summary in the annotated codes). If you are doing your research online using one of the for-pay services, such as Versuslaw, there will probably be a link to the case within the annoted code. Or you can find it by typing the citation into the site's search engine. If you are doing your research in a law library, take the citation to the librarian and ask for help.

  • In the law library—Show the law librarian your citation, and
  • Online—If you use one of the for-pay services, such as Versuslaw, you should be able to locate it by typing the citation into the site's search engine.

For some helpful free information online, check out Nolo's website (www.nolo.com), which contains detailed information on how to do legal research, including how to find and interpret cases.

Can Other Laws Help Your Case?

Understanding the specific law you violated—and the cases that interpret that law—is just part of your job. Since each law is written to deal with a very specific action (for example, exceeding the speed limit), other laws may also have a bearing on your case. Or put another way, the legal interpretation of one traffic law can sometimes affect another.

Here are some examples:

  • Section 123.45.678 of your state's motor vehicle law forbids exceeding 25 mph in a residential district. But section 123.45.605 says all your state's speed limits are "presumed" limits. This means even though you may have technically violated Section 123.45.678, you might be able to successfully claim that it was legal to do so because Section 123.45.605 allows you to exceed the speed limit when driving safely under the circumstances (see Chapter 5 for more on "presumed" speed limits).
  • You are ticketed for a violation of Section 123.45.654 of your state's vehicle code for making a U-turn in a "residential district." But Section 123.45.666 defines a residential district as an area with at least four houses per acre of land. Since you made your 
U-turn in an area with fewer houses per acre than are listed in statute 123.45.666, you can argue you are not guilty of every element of Section 123.45.654 and are, therefore, not guilty.
  • You are charged with speeding based on the reading of a radar gun used by the police officer. Your ticket says you are charged with a violation of Section 123.45.765 of the vehicle code, speeding. But Section 345.67.898 of the vehicle code says an officer must follow certain procedures in using radar, and you can prove the officer did not follow the proper procedures (see Chapter 6 for more on radar defenses).

To find information about other laws related to your case, like these here, you will have to search the annotated codes using terms that you believe relate to your ticket. (If you're doing your research using the hard copy books in the library, look up relevant subjects in the index.) Then you need to look up the laws related to those subjects and look for the "annotated" cases listed below the code, just as you did above.

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