Steven Denny

A Beginner’s Guide to Free Legal Research on the Internet

In Legal by Steven Denny0 Comments

 

Each time there is a simple “look it up” question on TCDLA’s listserve that I have time for, I first have to decide if it is a statute or case-law question. We will start with statutes.

The fact that you are reading this tells me that you have access to my first free resource for statutes—the TCDLA app. Go to the play store or the app store and download it now. Your organization put quite a bit of effort into it, and it works great. It does lack some of the state statutes (government code), and the search feature can be finicky. And I get tired of looking at my tiny phone screen, so I also consult www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Index.aspx . This is the official State of Texas resource. From this page, you can directly access each of the codes and browse through them. You really need to know where something is for this page to be useful, but it is great help for browsing related statutes once you know the number. Once you get to the statute you need, pressing Ctrl-f opens a box at the bottom of your screen that will allow you to search within the document. You can also access legislative history and not-yet-enacted bills through the link to the Texas Legislature online. That site is complicated and needs a completely separate how-to paper.

If you do not know where the statute is, click on the search tab. From here, you can search all the codes, or if you generally know where it is, just the code in which you think the statute is located. When searching, try to imagine how the text would be written and type that language. Use the same logic you use on google to find whatever you are looking for. Try different combinations, and do not finish words with multiple possible endings. For example, if you were looking for the time frame for the court to hold a probation revocation hearing, you would choose the code of criminal procedure and search for revoc hearing within, which produces seven results. The correct result is the fourth.

The state site is nice because the search terms are highlighted in red in your search results. If you know an exact phrase in the statute, search for it in quotations. For example, if you had a client arrested without a warrant, you can type arrest without warrant and you get 91 results. If you type “arrest without warrant” you get 6 results.

Once you have the statute number, you can search case law to see how the courts have applied it. This is free also. For this, there are a few free resources. I used to love lexisone, but it is no longer free. The state bar website has a free service, but I do not use it (http://texasbar.com/). Click on the casemaker logo in the center of the page and provide your bar number and password.

The free service I like is google scholar. From google, search scholar and click on the first result—or just go tohttp://scholar.google.com/ . Select case law, then select Texas, then type your search. Again, use terms like you would see in the case. Imagine what an appeals court would say. For example, illegal search gets you 4,600 results, illegal search of glove box gets 94 results, and “illegal search of glove box” gets you no results because an appellate court would not write that phrase. But “search of his glove compartment” gets one result from 1984. Click on it and you can scroll down to the highlighted terms or phrase.

From here, you can read the case, search within the case from a tab at the top left or through the browser search I described earlier, or you can click “how cited.” This takes you to a list of the cases that mention this case. The text excerpts will be in the main part of the screen, and a list of related documents and citing documents will be in a list to the right. You can click on any of these and the link will take you directly to where your case was cited in that case. You can limit the search to just the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas if you need to or—a trick I use to get cases relevant to my local court—include the city where the court is located in your search. For example, I might type “illegal searchAmarillo or “illegal search7th to try to get cases from the 7th Court in Amarillo. If you are searching a statute, use that as your term. For example, if you want to know about drug free zone, you get 7,630 results. For “drug free zone,” you get 823 results, and “481.134” gets you 212 results.

If you like a little more control or are getting too many results, from the results page click on the down-facing grey arrow near the top right and it will allow you to choose advanced search options.

Finally, if you just are not getting anywhere with your search, go out to regular Google or Yahoo or whatever you use and just search. Sometimes you can find a news release that cites the case you are looking for or, more often than not, a lawyer’s website where they have discussed the matter at length. I never rely on their analysis, but I do use that as a tool to find the right citations when my other searches have turned up nothing.

I like to try to answer the easy questions that can be solved with RTFM because I inevitably find something I’ve forgotten or never knew. When you know more about the law, you are a better lawyer and your clients benefit. For example, I was looking up someone’s simple question about a grand jury procedure and located Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 20.20—which blew my mind because I had never seen that done on an indictment. I then searched “20.20” and found that the courts made it discretionary and not mandatory. Wonder what I found? What a great way for you to practice what you just read! RTFM!