Friday Q&A: What Is Case Law and How Can It Be Against Me?

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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.

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