The Law Library: The Basics
We have heard a lot of complaints from those who are incarcerated that they don't know how to adequately use the Federal Bureau of Prisons electronic law library. In fact, we are not aware of any federal institution that actually holds a class to teach this necessity. So we are providing you with a few lessons to better equip you in researching the law, policies, and other publications found within this system. If you have any questions, please feel free to send us a message, and if possible we will answer your question and update this article to include it for those after you.
When you first open the electronic law library it has a list of publications that you can open and read just like you would a book. First you have to find which one that you want to read. The system at times allows you to search all publications at one time to make easier your research. We will discuss this more below.
LexisNexis Electronic Law Library provides a publication called LexisNexis Law Library Training Manual. It is ordinarily towards the bottom portion of the list of publications. Click on the box to the left and you should see a check mark appear inside of the box next to the publication you want to open and read. Once you do this you will see the "open" box which is grayed out at the upper right corner turn black so you are able to click on it. You can open multiple publications at one time, but for this section we are only focusing on this particular publication. Now that you have a check mark near the publication click "open" and a new screen will appear.
You can scroll down and read the contents, or if you want to particularize your research then you can click on the tab "contents". This is located approximately 2 1/2" to 3" under your name in red. Click the "contents" tab. Your screen will change and you will see a gray plus sign. When you click on this it will expand so you can see an additional list that is contained under that heading. once you click it the plus sign will turn into a minus sign. If you want to resort back then click on the minus sign and it will collapse.
Now you will see 10 topics that they have in their table of contents: (1) Content Selector; (2) Icon Tool Bar; (3) Basic Searching; (4) Case Law Searching; (5) Specific Case Searching; (6) Sherardizing; (7) searching for "laws" (statute/code searching); (8) Searching for statutes in the United States Code Service tables InfoBase; (9) Form searching; and (10) Sample case law, Statute, Act/Public Law and forms searches.
We will not go over what is already here, but rather provide you with specific examples and guide you in your research on major topics. We hope that this makes your researching a little easier and better equips you to standing up for your rights, and how to better perfect any pro se motions you may have to file. This will aid you in making your arguments more clear which will lessen the burden and frustration on the court and the prosecutors, as well as yourself. We will cite to the specific topic, which is found in the publication we now have open for additional information.
Now lets use a specific example. Our example is a real live research example that deals with the ACCA and how to argue that a predicate(s) no longer applies. When researching we should first set out what our argument is and what we want to achieve in a realistic legal fashion. Once we have written down our argument, we should go back over it and look at it as if we are the prosecutor trying to defeat it. Do a good job, because in real life they will spare you nothing. Once you have finished this, go back over it again, and prepare your reply brief. Then go over it again, and look at it from the stand point of a judge. It is a good idea to research your judge to know how s/he rules on the specific argument you are presenting. Then start it all over fixing anything part that you did not win in your mock proceedings. Ask others, even laymen, because if they can come up with an argument that may defeat yours, you should be prepared with case law to argue against them. The prosecutor or judge may also raise that same opposition.
At times, as discussed above the system allows you to search all publications contained in the data base at one time in an easy fashion. It is found by the "search all content basic (shift + Q) icon, which looks like a magnifying glass. You will find this once you open any publication and it is between the open folder icon and the print icon. for more information on the icons please see "topic 2: icon Tool Bar" for more information. Click this icon and a new screen will appear, or more so a pop up box.
We are going to begin our ACCA search for a predicate offense of 2nd Degree Assault. If you have a statute but not sure what state it is in, then this search all content icon will search all publications and you will quickly know which state. However, generally a person is searching their own priors and know what state they caught the offense in. This prior offense is from Missouri, which is located in the Eighth Circuit. You can easily see what circuit any state is in by looking at the publication called "court addresses", and opening the contents tab, clicking district court, and searching or use the search function. This Statute is Mo.Rev.Stat. section 565.060. So click on the search all content icon (i.e., magnifying glass).
In the small but wide query box type in "565.060". Make sure you start and end with the quotation marks. If you do not include the quotation marks on your searches then the system will automatically search for each character rather than group of characters. So in this search it will pull up thousands of hits finding 5, 6, and 0 searches. If you search for multiple words within quotation marks such as "first name and last name" then it will only search for those words when next to each other. Sometimes you need to give yourself a little leeway. So you can use two other functions the @ symbol and the / symbol. Lets say the name we are searching is John Smith, so in our search query we type in "john smith"@5 it will search for the words john smith within 5 words of each other no matter if they are forward or backwards. If we do "john smith"/5 instead then it will search for john smith within 5 words of each other but only to the extent that smith comes after the word smith. You do not have to use just 5, you can use any number. Generally a search starting with 25 to 50 is a good starting point and you can add or subtract as the need arises.
Now that we have the statute typed in the query box within quotations marks, click the "find" box in the upper right hand corner of the query box. It will show the search results, which in this case shows 10 info bases/publications. Click on the word "title" to the right of the word "matches". You do this for two main reasons. One, it puts the publications in order, and for two, if you do not do this then when you double click on the publication you want, they system will automatically rearrange the publications in the order they have as default. This means that you may open a publication you did not intend on opening. This can cause additional frustration, especially if you are not familiar with this system. There are enough things in the prison system to frustrate you so there is no need to add others if we can avoid them.
The first publication is BIA & AUU non-precedent Decisions. This publication is mainly for immigration purposes, but at times it too can be useful when researching for criminal matters not related to immigration issues. here we find a portion of the state statute, which is very beneficial because the Bureau of Prisons is not required by their policy statement to provide state law. See policy 1315.07, 11/5/99, legal activities, inmate program statement. This is not what the Code of Federal Regulation says, but it is the BOP's interpretation.
The wording of state statutes is often a vital component in federal law research dealing with criminal matters or civil matters (i.e., 2255 motions), because most people who are incarcerated have a state prior used against them in one fashion or another (i.e., statutory enhancement or sentencing guidelines). Now it is important to be careful when looking under this publication for non-immigration issues because the rules and case laws often will not apply. This is similar as to laws and codes coming from the District of Columbia. They are both based on a whole separate law system, which means if you quote something you think sounds good for your case it may not apply at all.
Now that we have the pertinent part of the statute we write that down or highlight it and click print. That way you can go to the print station and print it out for later use. Now let's continue on to the "U.S. District Court - Case Update" to see what is new for this statute. We want to get a basic idea of what courts are saying so we can begin to formulate our arguments. Our first hit, which may be different when you do it because the system may be updated, is "through the conviction record generally references Mo.Rev.Stat. section 565.060, the particular language used clearly tracks Mo.Rev.Stat. section 565.060.1(2). this is because the Eighth circuit has held that district courts may examine the information to determine whether its language "precisely tracks" the language if a specific subsection of the crime in which petitioner was convicted." United States v Thomas, 838 F.3d 926, 928 (8th Cir. 2016).
So this tells us something very important. It lets us know that courts have discretion in determining exactly what section you were convicted of it it is not clearly stated. This also informs us that there is a strong possibility that this statute is divisible, and thus we must also research that. It is a good practice to always begin with research of the categorical approach when dealing with any state prior that was used for any form of enhancement.
This is the end of the beginning of this lesson. Next time we will get a little more advanced.