Federal vs. State Criminal Law
No one ever looks to get arrested. Well, except for that guy who started a police chase because he was bored. When an arrest happens, it is important to understand the difference between federal and state criminal law. Who has jurisdiction?
Breakdown of State and Federal Jurisdiction:
It can be pretty simple. If a person breaks a state law, then the state has jurisdiction. If a person breaks a federal law, inside Native American territory, or across state lines, then the federal government has jurisdiction.
Surprising to some, both the federal and state governments can prosecute the same person. This is because of the concept of “dual sovereignty.” Dual sovereignty allows for both the federal and the state governments to be sovereign. This means that prosecution by both governments does not violate the well-known idea of double jeopardy, or not being able to be prosecuted twice for the same crime. It is further described by the Yale Law Journal like this:
Under the dual sovereignty doctrine, so long as two offenses are defined by different jurisdictions, they cannot constitute the "same offense." This is true even if the offenses contain identical elements and even if the underlying statutes contain identical language. The result is that the Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply in a multi-sovereign context. For example, a defendant who commits a kidnapping across two states can be charged, convicted, and punished three times - once by each state and once by the federal government.
There have been at least two high profile Virginia cases in the last decade that have involved both the breakdown of state vs. federal jurisdiction and the concept of dual sovereignty.
Bob McDonnell is a former governor of Virginia, who had higher political ambitions until he was prosecuted on federal corruption charges. It was determined that he and his wife had used their positions as the Commonwealth’s first couple to further the business of a man named Jonnie Williams.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned McDonnell’s conviction and narrowed the federal bribery statute, which will affect the federal prosecution corruption for many years to come.
The 2007 dogfighting charges against Michael Vick are still very well-known, especially as his National Football League career continues. What some people forget is that Vick was tried twice – once on the federal level and once at the state level – for the same conduct.
Vick pled guilty in the month of August to a federal conspiracy charge of bankrolling a dogfighting operation. Since the operation crossed state lines, the federal government was able to charge Vick. One month later, a grand jury in Surry County, Virginia opened the door for the Surry County Commonwealth's Attorney to pursue two charges against Vick. The evidence used was the same, but dual sovereignty allowed for this to happen.
Defense attorneys do not like this concept of dual sovereignty. McDonnell’s lawyers attempted to help their client defeat the federal corruption charge by showing how McDonnell did not break Virginia law. Michael Vick’s lawyer, once the Surry County charges were filed, said the following: “We are disappointed that these charges were filed in Surry County, since it is the same conduct covered by the federal indictment for which Mr. Vick has already accepted full responsibility and pleaded guilty to in U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia.” In other words, dual sovereignty might be legal, but we wish it would not be utilized here.
As you can see, there is a difference in the legal system between federal and state criminal laws. Keep this in mind the next time you see in the news that the federal government is getting involved in what might seem like a state case. Impress your friends with your knowledge of dual sovereignty. Most importantly, if you are being affected by the information presented here, you need a good attorney who understands the nuances of this system. Call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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