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Criminal case law overview and resources — Legal glossary

· 5 minute read

· 5 minute read

Definition, overview, and basic guidance for criminal case precedents and case law

Legal termscriminal law • criminal caselaw


Criminal case law (caselaw) refers to past decisions by courts that have the power to set legal precedent. These are binding or persuasive authorities that help guide the interpretation of the law in subsequent, similar criminal cases. 

The importance of criminal case law lies in its role in ensuring consistency and predictability in the legal system. By following precedents, courts maintain stability and continuity in the law. Each case contributes to the legal doctrine, either reaffirming established principles or introducing new interpretations.

Read further for more guidance and how to best utilize case law in your criminal defense cases.


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Interpret statutes

Legal arguments

Identify defenses

Analyze factual scenarios

Challenge or distinguish precedents

Research resources 

Criminal case law examples



Interpret statutes

Case law helps to interpret and clarify the meaning of criminal law statutes. Attorneys can analyze previous court decisions to understand how the courts have interpreted specific statutory provisions, which can guide their legal arguments and strategies in current cases.

Case law can provide attorneys with persuasive arguments to support their positions. By citing relevant case precedents, attorneys can demonstrate how the courts have ruled on similar issues in the past, strengthening their legal arguments and increasing the likelihood of a favorable outcome for their clients.

Identify defenses

Case law can help attorneys identify potential defenses by examining how courts have ruled in similar cases. By researching precedents, attorneys can determine which defenses have been successful in the past, enabling them to build stronger cases for their clients.

Analyze factual scenarios

Precedent case law can be used to analyze factual scenarios and determine their legal implications. By examining similar cases, attorneys can assess how the courts have applied the law to specific factual situations, allowing them to predict potential outcomes and advise their clients accordingly.

Challenge or distinguish precedents

Attorneys can also use case law to challenge or distinguish unfavorable precedents. If a previous court decision conflicts with their client’s position, attorneys can argue that the facts or legal principles in the current case are sufficiently different to warrant a different outcome.

Research resources 

Attorneys need access to comprehensive research resources to effectively navigate case law. Online legal databases, such as Westlaw, provide extensive collections of case law, allowing attorneys to search for relevant precedents by jurisdiction, topic, or keyword. These resources often include summaries and annotations that can assist attorneys in understanding and applying the law.

How to stay up to date with case laws

Case law continuously evolves with new decisions being issued regularly. Attorneys must stay updated on recent precedents to ensure they are aware of any changes in the interpretation or application of the law. Legal research platforms and subscriptions to legal journals can help attorneys stay abreast of the latest developments in case law.

Criminal case law examples

Graham v. Florida (2010) — The Supreme Court held in this case that sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Miller v. Alabama (2012) — Building upon the previous case, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional, even for those convicted of homicide. This decision recognized that courts must consider the individual circumstances and rehabilitation potential of juvenile offenders.

Hurst v. Florida (2016) — The Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s capital sentencing scheme, which allowed judges to make the final determination of a defendant’s death sentence without a jury’s recommendation, was unconstitutional. This decision reaffirmed the importance of the jury’s role in capital sentencing.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966) — This landmark case established the “Miranda warning,” requiring law enforcement officers to inform suspects of their constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, before custodial interrogations. The decision aimed to protect the Fifth Amendment rights of individuals in police custody.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) — In this case, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel for all criminal defendants, even those who cannot afford an attorney. This decision led to the establishment of public defenders and the right to legal representation for indigent defendants.


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