Friday Q&A: What is case law and how can it be against me?

Welcome to our new weekly series, Friday Q&A. Each week our attorneys
will respond to a question selected from the many received by direct and
online submission. Have a question you want answered or topic you want
to hear more about? Submit your suggestions to us by tweeting
@TLOBJ or sending a message to our
Facebook Page.

Question: In court the other day, I heard my attorney talking to the prosecutor about my case. The prosecutor said “the case law is not in your favor
on that.” They were discussing a motion to suppress evidence in
my OVI case. What is “case law” and why would it be against me?

Answer: Case law is the collective outcomes of prior cases that interpreted the
same rule or similar facts and circumstances as the case currently under
consideration.

In Ohio, crimes are defined by the Legislature and listed in Title 29 of
the Ohio Revised Code. Every criminal case begins with the filing of a
complaint or indictment, which must list a section of the Ohio Revised
Code that forms the basis of the allegation. That code section provides
the elements that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt
in order for the accused to be found guilty at trial.

In addition to the Ohio Revised Code, criminal cases follow the Ohio Rules
of Criminal Procedure, the Ohio Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution.
The decisions of trial courts are subject to review by the Court of Appeals
and the Supreme Court; the reviewing Courts’ written opinions make
up “case law.” In other words, case law answers the questions
asked on appeal, such as, was there sufficient evidence presented at trial
for a guilty verdict? Or, should this evidence have been admitted at trial
and therefore, shown to the jury?

Whether a line of case law is favorable to your individual circumstances
depends on several factors, including what standard is “controlling”
in your district. Ohio has twelve (12) Appellate districts, each with
a Court of Appeals that reviews the decisions of the trial courts in the
counties that form the district. Additionally, all courts in Ohio must
follow the interpretations and opinions of the Ohio Supreme Court and
the United States Supreme Court.

Arguments can be made to change the interpretation adopted by the Court
of Appeals, by (1) directly appealing the decision to a higher court,
going all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2)
through an appeal in future cases that present similar facts or circumstances.

Case law may be “against you” if there are a series of opinions
of the Appellate Courts that disagree with the interpretation of a rule
you wish your trial court to adopt. For example, in the context of an
OVI, say the officer who stopped you administered field sobriety tests,
including a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) test. It would help your case
to have the trial court find that the officer made a mistake that affects
the admissibility of the test by administering the HGN test while you
were seated in the back seat of the officer’s cruiser. But if you
are in a district where the Court of Appeals has found that specific mistake
does not impact whether the officer can testify about his observations
of your test taking or the result of the test, then that is an argument
you are unlikely to win at a hearing to keep the evidence from being used
against you at trial. In that sense, the case law would be “against
you” on that issue.