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Criminal Law Research Guide

Where Do I Start?

Criminal law is governed by an interesting mix of constitutional, statutory, and case law on both the federal and state levels. Additionally, there may be administrative regulations that are relevant in a given situation. The following checklist can be a good starting point:

  1. Identify your jurisdiction
  2. Use a secondary source like a treatise to help pinpoint relevant constitutional and/or statutory provisions and interpretive case law that govern in your jurisdiction (e.g., to identify and explain the armed burglary statute, M.G.L. 266 c. 14, if you are prosecuting or defending someone for that offense in Massachusetts)
  3. Use an annotated version of the appropriate statutory code to read the relevant provisions and make notes of any pertinent notes of decision or secondary sources
  4. Expand case law search beyond what you've found via the secondary source(s) and annotated statutory code(s) by using headnotes from known cases or running keyword searches in the relevant case law database. 
  5. Use a citator such as KeyCite or Shepard's to update and verify your research.
  6. Use a secondary source for forms to help draft appropriate pleadings, motions, responsive filings, etc.
  7. Keep an eye on current awareness tools, such as blogs, legal newsletters and newspapers, and law review articles to stay up-to-date on developments in the world of criminal law and procedure. 

Criminal Statutes

Title 18 of the United States Code covers federal crimes and criminal procedure, but criminal provisions can be found throughout the U.S. Code.

Part 4 of the General Laws of Massachusetts (Chapters 263-280) covers crimes, punishments and proceedings in criminal cases. Other important chapters of the General Laws include Chapter 90 (motor vehicle offenses) and Chapter 94C (controlled substances). 

Browse the table of contents and indexes for state codes to find relevant titles/chapters. 

Case Law

Secondary sources such as treatises can lead you to pertinent cases on your topic, as can an annotated statutory code.  Also, try researching cases by topic on Westlaw and LexisNexis.