The UCF Undergraduate Law and Policy Research Lab provides students the opportunity to explore the law through an empirical lens. Students examine and uncover how the law works, how cases are decided, the decision-making process, how legal professionals function, and what influences the processes and outcomes. As a research assistant, students may work on a current research project or develop a sub-project.
Few defendants appeal from their convictions. In fact, prosecutors are as likely to appeal as defendants. What are the outcomes of their appeals? What factors influence outcomes.
The present research builds on and extends preliminary research conducted in a single Florida county during a single year (n=59), which found that few misdemeanor defendants appealed, the few who appealed were not advised of their right to appeal by judges, and unsurprisingly, the defendants, who appealed, were largely represented by attorneys at trial and on appeal. Important differences emerged between cases appealed by prosecutors (they were more likely to win) and defendants, and with the experience levels of the prosecutors and defenders at trial and on appeal (Smith, 2019).
Using unique datasets of records and transcripts from a ten-year period and an estimated 600 cases appealed from the lower courts in a single metropolitan county in Florida, the present study examines whether the preliminary study patterns hold and investigates:
- whether representation,
- the seriousness of the criminal convictions, and
- the issues raised on appeal
influence appellate outcomes. The present study will also explore the influence of these independent variables on appellate outcomes, while controlling for race and gender of the courtroom workgroup members, defendants' race and gender, who appealed (prosecutor or defendant), the number of prosecutor and defender practice years, the issues raised on appeal, and the defendants' sentence.
To provide context for the quantitative findings, the trial transcripts will be qualitatively examined to identify, code, and report patterns and themes on differentiated case processing and judicial determinations.
- What motivates women to enter and continue in criminal defense?
- How do women define their professional roles and identities?
- What strategies are used by women to navigate and negotiate the complexities and obstacles of their everyday lives?
The American Bar Association recently released two reports from a study that identified the obstacles and challenges faced by female lawyers (prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and judges) in navigating the profession: (1) inflexible work schedules, (2) insufficient wellness resources, (3) inadequate opportunities for professional development, and (4) a lack of meaningful mentoring (Ahranjani, 2020, 2021). This qualitative research project is intended to explore the motivations of female criminal defense lawyers to enter that field, how they define their roles, and what strategies they employ to navigate the unique challenges of criminal defense.
Are female lawyers and judges interrupted more often than male lawyers and judges in the lower court, appellate proceedings, and trial court settings?
In 2017, Professors Jacobi and Schweers released a study that examined the effect of gender, ideology, and seniority on interruptions during Supreme Court oral arguments. Using these findings as our starting point, this project examines the content and, through the lens of critical discourse theory, the same patterns of interrupting behavior at arguments and advocacy in lower court proceedings.
- How are court decisions framed by various media outlets?
- Who are the dominant contributors (voices) in how court decisions are framed by media outlets and accounts?
- How are criminal defendants and victims framed by media coverage and accounts?
Framing strategies and critical discourse examinations of court decisions have predominantly focused on Supreme Court cases (e.g., Clawson, Strine, & Waltenburg, 2003; Mathias, 2016) or high-profile cases (e.g., Matthews, 2021). The projects in this area will employ qualitative research methodologies to investigate the framing strategies of the media, critical discourse, or thematic and narrative analysis to examine how varying media present court decisions and criminal defendants to the general public.
Clawson, R.A., Strine, H.C., & Waltenburg, E.N. (2003). Framing Supreme Court decisions: The mainstream versus black press. Journal of Black Studies, 33(6)., 784-800.
Matthews, L. (2021). How are defendants of high-profile court cases framed in the media? A qualitative analysis of news media coverage of Caroline Flack’s arrest. the Plymouth Student Scientist, 14(2), 548-570. (undergraduate student publication from another university).
Matthias, L. (2016). Judicial tyranny or American justice? How partisan news’ coverage of polarizing Supreme Court decisions differs in framing the nation’s highest court. ScienceOpen Research 2016. DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-SOCSCI.AYUSLA.v1
- How do judges/justices and advocates navigate the practical uncertainties of a complex legal case?
- How do discourse, framing strategies, and metaphors influence case outcomes.
Drawing on thematic analysis, this project explores recent Supreme Court or State Supreme Court decisions and the use of legal discourse, framing strategies, and metaphors by advocates and Justices or Judges at oral argument and legal briefs and court decisions. These projects can take on various forms and perspectives, depending on students’ interests.
The State Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit adopted a no-money-bail policy for nine misdemeanor offenses. Did this change impact defendants' quality of life, recidivism rates, and sentencing?
Eliminating Cash Bail
Reducing or eliminating cash bail has become increasingly promoted, but skeptics have raised concerns that negative consequences may flow from the policy change (Ouss & Stevenson, 2019). "Thus evidence on how monetary bail impacts appearance rates and pretrial crime is crucially important to the future of bail reform" (Ouss & Stevenson, 2019, p. 5). However, evaluating bail reform, particularly the use of non-monetary release is sparse (Ouss & Stevenson, 2019). Similar to the recent study by Ouss & Stevenson (2019), which evaluated the increased use of nonmonetary release in Philadelphia, the proposed project, research objective, and questions are intended to explore the impact of a new non-monetary bail reform instituted by the Orange County (Florida) Office of the State Attorney in mid-2018. Instituting this policy created an opportunity to measure the influence of non-monetary bail on defendants charged with nine low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses on a variety of judicial and quality-of-life outcomes compared to pre-policy outcomes, evaluate judicial determinations on bail controlling for demographic and case characteristics, and compare outcomes to a control groups of the remaining misdemeanor crimes.
The first stage of the project takes a quantitative approach, using archival data to evaluate the impact of the policy on judicial outcomes (release and sentencing), court appearance, and recidivism.
The second stage of the project focuses on defendant interviews and content analysis to capture the influence of pretrial detention or release on their perceptions about the court system and court actors as well as the consequences of pretrial detention and/or the potential benefits of effective advocacy and non-monetary release on defendants' quality of life, including employment, housing, and child custody.
- To what extent is prosecutorial advocacy for misdemeanor defendants' non-monetary release associated with judicial bail determinations?
- What is the relationship, if any, between misdemeanor defendant's pretrial status (release on own recognizance, released on monetary bail, released under new policy, or pretrial detention) and their subsequent judicial outcome?
- To what extent might defendants' perceptions of the courts and court actors impact court appearance and recidivism rates?
- To what extent is the bail determination (released on own recognizance, released on monetary bail, released under new, non-monetary bail policy, or pretrial detention) associated with judicial outcomes, quality of life measures, perception of the courts and court actors?
Misdemeanor defendants waive their right to counsel more often than not. Why do they forfeit this foundational right?
Although every state has either a statutory or judicially approved mechanism for defendants to contribute to or repay the costs of public counsel, Florida has one of the most stringent cost-sharing models in the country, which includes a $50 application fee that is not subject to judicial waiver. The Supreme Court has upheld cost-sharing laws, but the Court has not directly addressed the constitutionality of application fees (i.e., a fee for the court to evaluate if defendants are too poor to hire an attorney), nor has scholarly works examined whether these fees chill or dissuade defendants from asserting their right to counsel.
The Preliminary Study
In a preliminary study of this issue, 14 defendants, who plead to misdemeanor crimes at arraignment waived counsel. When asked why they waived counsel, the defendants focused on expedience and efficiency, wanting their case to be over without delay. Most did not think they needed a lawyer.
The overarching focus was on expedience and efficiency. Defendants' short-sighted, results-oriented approach was reinforced by trial judges, who emphasized the quickness of the proceedings. Trial judges did not adequately advise defendants of their rights, nor were they advised of the advantages of using a lawyer or the disadvantages of proceeding without one. Most defendants explained that they did not "need" a lawyer or they implied that a lawyer was unnecessary because the charge was minor. Without proper advisement, defendants seem to hold the incorrect presumption that legal counsel is dispensable and misdemeanor crimes are "minor" without long-term consequences.
The Current Project
The proposed research will expand on the preliminary work by:
- Interviewing defendants who waive their constitutional rights and those that do not to assess variation in their reasons for proceeding with and without counsel.
- Asking defendants who waive counsel whether mounting costs-sharing fees, including application fees, chilled their assertion of the right to counsel.
- Inquiring whether trial judges inadvertently send defendants the message that misdemeanor crimes are unimportant, and lawyers are unnecessary.
- Examining whether defendants who are adequately informed about the advantages and disadvantages of proceeding with and without counsel, the potential for short- and long-term consequences of misdemeanor arrests and convictions, and the availability of free counsel would choose counsel.
- An Empirical Examination of Societal Expectations of Privacy in the Digital Age of GPS, Cell Phone Towers, and Drones
- Testing Judicial Assumptions of the "Consensual" Encounter: An Experimental Study
- When the Victim Recants: The Impact of Expert Witness Testimony in Prosecution of Battering Cases, in Women and Justice: It's a Crime (4th Edition)
- Smith, A., Maddan, S., King, C., & Elshiekh, N. (2020). Testing the effects of a prosecutor policy recommending no-money release for nonviolent misdemeanor defendants. American Journal of Criminal Law, 48, 43- 79.
Students as Research Assistants & Collaborators
- The Cost of (In)justice: A Preliminary Study of the Chilling Effect of the $50 Application Fee in Florida's Misdemeanor Courts
- Beyond Impressionistic Analysis: An Empirical Evaluation of 21st Century Nonlawyer Courts
- Misdemeanors Lack Appeal. 45 Am. J. of Crim. L. 305
- Rush to Judgment: How South Carolina's Summary Courts Fail to Protect Constitutional Rights
Student Presentations and Co-Presentations
- Three-Minute Justice: Haste and Waste in Florida's Misdemeanor Courts
- Non-Monetary Bail and Recidivism
- Thirty More Years of Social Science in Supreme Court Criminal Cases: 1988-2018
- Misdemeanor Appeals and Due Process
- Privacy Rights in the Digital Age: An Empirical Approach
- Police-Citizen "Consensual Encounters:" Myth or Reality
- The high impact of low-level crime: Preliminary findings (Caroline King at National Social Science Association Conference, Spring 2022).
- Impact of counsel type on bail decisions and case outcomes (Nefertari Elshiekh at National Social Science Association Conference, Spring 2022).