Lawyers and Judges Distinguish Cases to Explain Different Legal Results

When an attorney (or a judge) distinguishes a case, we mean that the lawyer is explaining why one case is different from another case.

Remember, in the common law tradition, cases which present similar facts should have similar results.  As a result, if an earlier case ends in one legal decision, judges in later cases will often follow that earlier decision, especially if a case presents similar facts.

But lawyers and judges will distinguish cases – – analyze why they are different – – to explain why one case has a different result or should have a different result from a prior case.


Example: Distinguishing Cases For Purposes of the Fourth Amendment

As a general rule, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires the government to obtain a warrant before conducting a search.  If police fail to get a warrant, the search may be unconstitutional.  However, the Supreme Court has held that the requirement to get a warrant applies to searches of homes but not always to cars.  Cars are different from homes because they are mobile, therefore,  evidence could be driven away in the time that a police officer is requesting the warrant.

This precedent from the Supreme Court guides lawyers and judges when they analyze searches by the police under other circumstances.  For example, if a person is camping on public campgrounds should the police get a warrant before searching the tent?  On the one hand, the tent is probably mobile like a car.  On the other hand, a tent is similar to a home where a person lives.


How One Court Distinguished Two Cases with Two Different Mobile Homes

According to the Supreme Court, police usually do not need a search warrant to search a mobile home because mobile homes, like cars, are readily mobile.  While the police wait to obtain a warrant, a person could drive away with the evidence.  The Supreme Court held in California v. Carney that no warrant was required to search a mobile home that had easy access to the road.

But other courts have reached different conclusions under different circumstances.  One federal court distinguished California v. Carney in a case where police searched a mobile home that was primarily used a residence.  In distinguishing California v. Carney, the federal court explained:

This motor home was located in a rural area on a private wooded lot owned by the Defendants. An electric generator was operating at the time of this arrest. Additionally, other motor vehicles used for transportation purposes were located on the property. The Defendants’ personal effects, including clothing and food items, were located in the motor home. Moreover, the motor home contained a kitchenette, sink, bed, sofa and a dining room table. Finally, there was no convenient or easy access to a public road from where the motor home was located.

United States v. Adams, 845 F. Supp. 1531, 1536–37 (M.D. Fla. 1994)
As you can see in the paragraph the above, the Court emphasized that this mobile home, unlike the mobile home in California v. Carney, presented different circumstances.  Therefore, the Court concluded that a different legal result was appropriate.

The video below discusses how lawyers and judges in the United States distinguish cases.

United States Law: An Introduction for International Students

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