The Law Library: US Statutes

Now that we have the basics down it's really important to be able to research statutes, because if you are reading this then one was already used against you. If you want to fight a case, appeal a case, whether it is criminal or civil, it all begins with what the legislature has written, and what the judicial body has interpreted, and the Executive branch enforces. A criminal statute is what gives the executive branch (law enforcement) the authority to arrest you legally. We have been discussing a Missouri statute, Mo.Rev.Stat. section 565.060, because it's a potential predicate for an ACCA enhancement. Although we are using this particular statute as an example, the rules will apply to any statute. Today, we are going to add another statute to our research, 18 U.S.C. section 924(e)(1), A.K.A. the Armed Career Criminal ("ACCA") statute.

Before we go to the "search all content" icon, lets do it as if the icon does not exist. Some days it just may not be there and it is important how to do things manually as well. It is like being able to use a calculator, it makes doing math easy, but what if you need to do a math problem and you have no calculator? You should always know how to do everything manually even if you don't use those means.

When researching Federal law multiple jurisdictions may be important. That is because under federal law the government is allowed to prosecute you for the identical crime in both state and feds. The United States Supreme Court took this question up again a couple of years ago in Gamble v United States. It is also important because most individuals who are in federal prison had a prior state offense for something, and these are used for a variety of enhancements. They can be for sentencing enhancements such as USSG section 4A.1, or 4B1.1, and others, or it can be used for a statutory enhancement such as the ACCA statute. So being able to research these statutes properly will give you the tools needed to effectively argue and defend yourself. In the example that we have been using, for ease, the case originates from Missouri and so are the predicates.

Normally a person knows what circuit their priors are in, but what if you are helping someone and you do not know? Lets see how we can find them in a system that does not have state case law. First, we need to know what circuit we are working in, because there is a difference between controlling or precedent case law and persuasive case law. Controlling case law comes only from the Court of Appeals for the Circuit you are arguing in (where your litigation is), and from the United States Supreme court. Any other case law from other circuits are only persuasive. So if your arguing in the Eighth circuit and you find a case from the 7th Circuit, that case is only persuasive. In other words, the Eighth circuit and even the district courts within the Eighth circuit is allowed to dismiss or reject that case law, but is permitted to accept it as persuasive. They are not bound by it, but they are bound by case law from the Circuit they preside in.

Go to your publications list and scroll down to "Court Addresses", and open the publication. Click on the "contents" tab and then expand (clicking the gray plus sign) for Federal Court Addresses. You will see: United States Supreme Court, United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, United States States Court of Appeals, and United States District Courts. Expand the last one. You can either look at each circuit individually to see what state is in what circuit, or you can place a check mark in the box next to United States District Courts by clicking on the box, after you expanded the list. Then press F2 on your keyboard at the top left, or click on the binoculars icon in-between your "show history" icon and "clear query" history icon.

Type "Missouri", remembering to use your quotation marks. Although you are only searching for one word and they are not a series of numbers it is not necessary for the quotations marks. However, it is a good practice to get into, especially when we get into more advanced searches. Now press enter. You should see 4 hits: 1 in the seventh circuit, 2 in the Eighth Circuit, and 1 in the Ninth Circuit. Look at these to see if the state you are looking for is found within that circuit. We can see that Missouri is within the Eighth circuit and the other two circuits the word Missouri are streets.

Now we know where our primary focus should be. Go back to your publication list and scroll down until you see the Eighth Circuit. Click on all five boxes for the 8th circuit including court of appeals and district courts. Then click open in the upper right hand corner.

You are able to search all five of these at the same time if you choose. We will get to that in one moment. Click "Window" at the top of your screen under your name in red. Here you have the option of seeing all the screens at one time through cascade, vertically, or horizontally. Click on vertically for this example. The box that is a darker blue is the one you will automatically search from, by default.

Press F2 to open your advanced search query box and type in "18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1)" and click "Apply to All" at the bottom of your query box. You will see that you have several hits in each of your five publications just from a glance. These hits that you see, because they are statutes, you will generally see them in blue or an underline. This means that they are a hyperlink. This means if you click on them it will take you to that statute, publication, or case law. When you place your cursor over a hyperlink it will turn into a hand pointing a finger. (This happens with this system, but not all systems are the same, so once you reach the free world again, God willing, it may be an hour glass, or something else). Place your cursor over the hyperlink and when it turns into the finger pointing hand click with your left mouse button.

A new publication will open for United States Code showing you the statute you are searching for. Let's take a look at how to read a statute. For those of you who already know, we mean no disrespect, but want to try to be as thorough as possible for those who do not know. We only have access to federal statutes, so the federal statute in our research is 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1). The (18) is the Title, "U.S.C." is the book, which in this case is United States Code, the s over the s or what some consider squiggly lines is called the section symbol. If it is in type form then "section" is used in its place. 924 is the section of Title 18 that we are looking at; (e) is the subsection of section 924 of title 18; and (1) is the subsection of subsection (e) of section 924 of Title 18. This in the end is the directions to our ultimate location, finding the statute we are looking for. It is easy to get lost so go slow and take your time. It is worth taking your time, because not all things are worth the speed.

We only want to know right now the statute applicable to the issue we are researching, but again this break down applies to any statute no matter if it is federal or state, criminal or civil. While looking at the statute, scroll down until you see subsection (e)(1). In this case they are written exactly like that "(e)(1)". First you will see (a)(1), then you will see (b), a little further down you will see (c)(1)(A). Keep going and don't scroll fast, its like a labyrinth. Next you will see (d)(1) and then finally (e)(1). This is where we want to be. It begins with "In the case of a person who violates section 922(g) of this title...". We need to read and familiarize ourselves with the pertinent statute and its subsections that we are researching. In this example everything from (e)(1) to (f), but not including (f) is applicable.

Great! Always check amendments when researching. The first place you should begin in any research is the statute, because how it reads will dictate what the government can and cannot do. If they go outside of the scope that Congress gives them then this can be a separation of powers violation that makes there act null and void, not voidable but void. The courts where created by Congress, except the United States Supreme Court which is created from the Constitution. You will see at the very beginning of this statute, before you began to scroll down that there was a caution note; [caution: see prospective amendment notes below.] This means you really need to read them, because changes may have happened or may soon happen. Scroll all the way down till you see "effective date of section". Here we see it became effective 180 days after June 19, 1968. This is important because its not valid if charged with a crime that took place prior to its enactment. This would be a violation of Ex Post Facto laws.

We see that on December 10, 2023 two changes are set to take place. These changes may be useful, if Congress does not act to make a different change prior to this time, so always read them. It also will let you know if for example, the Supreme Court has struck part or all of the statute you are researching. Below those is "Amendment Notes" and they go in chronological date order from oldest to newest. The date the crime took place is the most important not when you were arrested. The law here gets tricky so be cautious. This would require another topic in and of itself. For more information, research Ex Post Facto laws. For example, this rule does not apply if you are charged with a conspiracy. In such case, it goes from the date of the last overt act. So read the amendments and notes carefully.

October 27, 1986 we see congress changed "for robbery or burglary, or both" and made it what it is today "for a violent felony or a serious drug offense, or both." Again, pay attention to amendments because Ex Post Facto laws is a constitutional issue. The government cannot criminalize conduct that was committed when it was legal. Although they can change and make many things criminal from non criminal, the difference comes in if the act has already been completed. So lets say you make some baby formula today, but tomorrow congress criminalizes an ingredient you used. You do not do it again once it was made criminal nor participated in aiding and abetting, assessory after the fact, attempt, or conspiracy, then the government cannot come back and charge you for what was not illegal when you done it.

To aid you in your research of statutes there is a table of contents of the analysis/notes to decisions found at the bottom of every statute. This can be a very useful starting point, especially if you are not familiar with the case law. It can also be very beneficial, because it breaks down vital areas such as, but not limited to: purpose, construction and interpretation, Bureau of Prisons, elements of offenses vs. sentence or enhancement thereof, constitutional considerations, double jeopardy, and much more. Researching takes many hours to be effective, but if you know where to begin and what confines to stay within, then you can lessen your burden and headache. Again, this is a good starting point when beginning your research.

Lastly, for this part, there is another way to search for statutes through, which is through the publication "United States Code". This way is a little more complex, and easy to get lost, but is good to know. Go back to your list of publications, click on "United States Code Service" and open up that publication. Click on "contents" tab and go to the title you want. Generally when those who are incarcerated are researching the two major statutes is Title 18 and Title 21. Title 18 is "Crimes and Criminal Procedure". We know this is what we want, because the code is 18 U.S.C. 924(e)(1).

Expand this category and you'll see (1) preceding section 1; (2) Part I. Crimes; (3) Part II. Criminal Procedure; (4) Part III. Prisons and Prisoners; (5) Part IV. Correction of Youthful Offenders; (6) Part V. Immunity of Witnesses; (7) Title 18 - Appendix; and (8) Sentencing Guidelines for United States Courts.

We know we are searching for a criminal statute, a crime, so expand Part. I. Crimes. here you will find 123 chapters of different crimes that the Legislative Branch has penalized. If you know what chapter the crime you are searching is under then go straight to that one, but most people do not know this, even those who commonly indulge themselves in such research or practice law. We want to search just within this section (i.e., Part I. Crimes), so place a check mark in the box to the left. This will automatically place a check mark in Title 18 crimes and criminal procedure; Part. I Crimes; and all 123 chapters.

Now when you search you will only search within these select areas making your research more effective by eliminating areas that we know we do not want to be. Press F2 and type "924(e)(1)" and press enter or click "okay". We see 151 hits (Note: the number of hits will change based on multiple factors such as updates to system and how query is entered), 2 in general provisions, 1 in escape and rescue, 147 in chapter 44 "Firearms", and 1 in racketeering. Lets start with Chapter 44 Firearms, because 924(e)(1) only exists because of 18 U.S.C. 922(g) [a firearm statute]. Expand the category.

There is 16 subcategories here of which we see section 924, exactly what we are looking for. Double left click your mouse on section 924. Your cursor will not change this time. Now your statute will appear for you to read and begin the process that we spoke about earlier.


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