In the American criminal justice system, most prosecutions occur at the state level in municipal or county courts. The federal government exercises jurisdiction over criminal matters when the states lack jurisdiction, including areas specifically reserved to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, and over criminal offenses that occur on federal property. Federal authorities may also prosecute certain crimes that, while normally handled by the states, become federal offenses by crossing from one state to another. In these types of cases, federal and state prosecutors may be able to pursue separate actions against a defendant, despite the Fifth Amendment’s protection against “double jeopardy.”
Federal Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, meaning that they can only hear cases within the scope of the Constitution and federal law.
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution grants the federal government, through Congress, exclusive authority over certain issues, such as bankruptcy, immigration, patents, the Postal Service, and coining and regulating money. Federal courts therefore have the exclusive authority, known as “subject matter jurisdiction,” to consider criminal cases involving these matters, which might include fraud offenses relating to bankruptcy, mail fraud using the U.S. Mail, criminal immigration cases, and money counterfeiting.
Congress has constitutional authority over taxation under the Taxing and Spending Clause of Article I, Section 8 and the Sixteenth Amendment, which enables federal prosecutions for tax evasion and tax fraud. The Fourteenth Amendment gives the federal government jurisdiction over prosecutions for civil rights violations.
The Commerce Clause, also found in Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the authority “to regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.” This has been used as the basis for a substantial amount of legislation regarding criminal law, as discussed more below.
Crimes Committed on Federal Property
City, county, and state governments have direct authority over most areas of the country. Unless an alleged criminal offense falls under the federal government’s subject matter jurisdiction, state or local laws apply in most criminal matters, ranging from minor traffic offenses to serious felonies. The federal Criminal Code includes provisions for many offenses normally handled at the state level. These include violent offenses like assault, kidnapping, and homicide, as well as non-violent financial crimes.
These federal statutes apply to offenses that occur in areas owned or administered directly by the federal government, or under direct federal authority. This includes geographic locations like U.S. National Parks, federal courthouses, federal prisons, the District of Columbia, and Indian reservations. It also includes locations over which the federal government has temporary authority, such as airplanes in flight and ocean-going vessels at sea.
A federal court usually hears cases involving crimes that occur on federal property. Federal property may include:
Other federal buildings
The District of Columbia
Planes in flight
Ships at sea
Crimes Committed Across State Lines
A vast array of federal statutes are based on Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause, including laws regarding drugs and firearms. Many federal criminal statutes expressly limit their application to acts that affect interstate commerce or that cross state lines. The mail and wire fraud statutes give the federal government jurisdiction over many offenses that might otherwise fall under state authority.
For the purposes of double jeopardy, federal and state crimes involving the same conduct may be considered different “offenses,” allowing both jurisdictions a chance to pursue prosecution.
Federal and state law may overlap in some criminal cases, particularly if the federal statute relies on Commerce Clause powers. This is known as “concurrent jurisdiction,” and it can have serious consequences for some defendants. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects any person from being “subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Known as “double jeopardy,” this means that if the government fails to convict a person of an offense, it cannot prosecute the person again for the same offense. Because of concurrent jurisdiction, state and federal statutes are considered different “offenses,” meaning that if a person is acquitted of a federal charge, state prosecutors could still bring charges.