How a Crime Becomes a Federal Crime


handcuffs in courtDo you ever wonder how a case is determined to be heard in federal or state court? Whether a crime is punished by the state or federal government is a matter of jurisdiction. In basic terms, jurisdiction is the official power to make legal decisions and judgments. A court must have jurisdiction over a matter for that court to hear and decide the case.

When the Federal Government Has Sole Jurisdiction

Federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution to decide disputes involving the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. Therefore, there are certain instances in which the federal government will have sole jurisdiction over a case and therefore it must be heard in federal court. Below are some situations in which this would apply:

  • A crime that takes place on federal land or involves federal officers, such as a murder in a national forest or on an Indian reservation. Additionally, theft on a military base or an assault against a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent;
  • A crime in which the defendant crosses state lines. For instance if a defendant kidnaps an individual and takes him or her from Texas to Oklahoma.
  • A crime in which the criminal conduct crosses state lines. Similar to the above; however, the focus is instead on the actual conduct. An internet fraud scheme is a good example since this conduct can originate in one state and cause harm in another.
  • Immigration and customs violations, such as importing illegal drugs or international human trafficking.

What Happens When Both Have Jurisdiction?

Federal and state law may often overlap in some criminal cases. This situation is referred to as concurrent jurisdiction. “Concurrent jurisdiction” occurs when both the federal and state government have the ability to exercise judicial view at the same time, within the same territory, and over the same subject matter. For example, when a crime defined under state law is committed on federal property, and certain offenses including Indian tribe members, both the state and federal government would have jurisdiction over the case. Also, many criminal actions are prohibited by both state and federal laws, particularly if the federal offenses involves Interstate Commerce Clause powers.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects any person from being “subject for the same offense twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This is commonly referred to as “double jeopardy.” Because of concurrent jurisdiction, state and federal statutes are considered different offenses. Therefore, if a person is acquitted of a federal offense charge, that defendant can still be charged by state prosecutors. Along the same lines, a defendant can then be found guilty of the same crime in both federal and state courts.

If you have been convicted of a federal crime, please contact the attorneys at Shein & Brandeburg. Our team will analyze the details of your specific case to ensure that it is heard by the proper court and that your rights are protected.