State vs. Federal Jurisdiction in Criminal Cases

Learn the differences between state and federal crimes and prosecutions.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Jurisdiction refers to a court's authority to hear and decide a case. Generally speaking, federal courts have jurisdiction over federal crimes, and state courts have jurisdiction over state crimes. But some kinds of conduct qualify as both state and federal offenses. Or a crime might continue from one state to the next. Which court has jurisdiction to hear these types of cases?

This article will review the differences between state and federal criminal jurisdiction, as well as what happens when one crime can be charged in multiple states or in federal and state court.

What Crimes Are Prosecuted in Federal Court?

Crimes that violate federal law or that involve a national or federal interest can be prosecuted in federal court. For example, federal tax fraud and immigration offenses are crimes that violate federal law. Crimes that involve a national or federal interest include those where:

  • the crime occurred on land owned or controlled by the federal government (such as theft in a national park)
  • the crime was committed against the United States or a federal agency (such as sedition or Small Business Administration loan fraud)
  • the crime crossed state lines or involved interstate commerce (for example, money laundering or drug trafficking), or
  • the defendant crossed state lines when committing the crime (such as moving sex trafficking victims or a stolen car from one state to the next).

    In some cases, the federal interest is clear, such as seditious conspiracy charges in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. In others, the connection to interstate commerce (and thus federal jurisdiction) can be slight. Take the example below.

    Example: Eight men try to rob a racetrack in Illinois but are thwarted by security guards. In their subsequent prosecution for attempted robbery, they argue that the federal government doesn't have jurisdiction to prosecute them because the alleged crime occurred on state grounds. But because the racetrack's money is federally insured, many of the horses' owners come from out of state, and the track uses several out-of-state services (for betting machines and advertising materials, for example), jurisdiction was properly vested in the U.S. government. (See United States v. Harty, 930 F.2d 1257 (7th Cir. 1991).)

    Who Are Federal Prosecutors?

    Charges for federal crimes are brought by federal prosecutors, called U.S. Attorneys (or Assistant U.S. Attorneys), and tried in federal court. Federal prosecutors work for the U.S. government, just like state prosecutors work for the state and city prosecutors work for their cities. The title of a federal criminal case will read United States v. the Defendant.

    Federal trial courts are divided into districts, with some states having one district and others having two, three, or four districts. For instance, California has four district courts (the Central, Eastern, Northern, and Southern Districts). The name of the federal trial court includes the district, such as the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Check out the U.S. Courts website to learn more about how federal courts are organized.

    What Crimes Are Prosecuted in State Court?

    Each state has its own penal or criminal code that defines crimes and their penalties, such as murder, assault, robbery, burglary, DUI, and rape. Most crimes that occur within a state's borders, or within three miles of its coastline, are prosecuted in state court by a state or district attorney. The title of a state court case might be something like the People of the State of New York v. the Defendant or the State of Minnesota v. the Defendant.

    State law usually specifies which courts have jurisdiction over which types of cases. In many states, adult felonies and misdemeanors are divided between different courts. Most states also have juvenile courts, which have exclusive jurisdiction over most crimes committed by minors. The names for the kinds of state courts vary from state to state, such as district court, county court, superior court, or municipal court.

    Can a Crime Violate Both State and Federal Law?

    Yes, a crime can violate both state and federal law in one of a few ways. For instance, a crime might occur partly on federal land and partly on non-federal land, giving the state and the federal government jurisdiction. Or a crime might violate state law, such as murder, but as soon as the defendant moved the body across state lines, a federal crime was committed. In this situation, a second state might also have jurisdiction. Say the defendant murders a victim in California but dumps the body in Nevada—here the defendant committed crimes in both California and Nevada and under federal law (by crossing state lines).

    Can a Crime Be Prosecuted in Both State and Federal Court?

    Yes, a defendant can face prosecution for the same crime in both state and federal court. However, in many instances, one of the jurisdictions will defer to another. For example, the federal government might prosecute a case, instead of a state, where the crime involved a large sex trafficking ring because the federal government has more resources. The deferring government might step in only if the other prosecution fails. Or sometimes both state and federal prosecutors will pursue criminal charges.

    In some sense, it seems unfair for a defendant to undergo criminal prosecution more than once for the same alleged offense. After all, doesn't the prohibition against double jeopardy prevent exactly that? Unfortunately for some defendants, the answer is no. The Constitution's Double Jeopardy Clause prevents multiple prosecutions or punishments by the same "sovereign." Successive state and federal prosecutions don't violate the clause because state and federal governments are separate sovereigns.

    Example: In 1991, several Los Angeles police officers were involved in the vicious beating of motorist Rodney King. In the state criminal case, the jury acquitted the officers on all but one charge (as to which it hung), sparking the 1992 LA Riots. Months later, a federal grand jury indicted the officers for the same beating under a federal law punishing anyone who, acting under governmental authority, violates another person's federal rights. (18 U.S.C. § 242.) A federal jury ultimately convicted two of the four officers.

    Example: Federal authorities charged NFL quarterback Michael Vick for running an interstate dogfighting business. A federal court sentenced him to 23 months in prison. The state of Virginia separately prosecuted Vick for the dogfighting ring. After his federal conviction, while he was still in U.S. custody, he pleaded guilty to a state charge. (The sentence for the state crime was essentially folded into the federal sentence he was serving.)

    Can a Crime Be Prosecuted in Multiple States?

    Usually, any state in which an essential part of a crime has been committed can prosecute the offender—meaning more than one state might have jurisdiction where the crime begins in one state and continues into another.

    Some state laws and constitutions address this type of concurrent jurisdiction, but others don't. In most cases, the first-in-time rule applies. When there are competing claims to jurisdiction, the prosecuting attorneys usually get together and try to reach an agreement about who will "go" first. Often, the first court to exercise jurisdiction over the defendant keeps the case to itself—at least for a while. That state's jurisdiction will be exclusive. Any other courts claiming jurisdiction must wait until the case is over or the first court releases its jurisdiction.

    And like federal and state prosecutions, having multiple prosecutions in each affected state doesn't violate double jeopardy because each state is a separate "sovereign." (In fact, it's at least theoretically possible that multiple states and the federal government could prosecute a defendant for a single course of conduct.)

    Example: A man hired two men to kill his wife. Pursuant to his plan, the men kidnapped the wife in Alabama, then drove her into Georgia and killed her. The man pleaded guilty to murder in Georgia in exchange for a life sentence. After the plea, an Alabama court tried and convicted him and sentenced him to death. The U.S. Supreme court held that, under the dual sovereignty principle, two states may separately prosecute a defendant for the same conduct without violating the Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause. (Heath v. Alabama, 474 U.S. 82 (1985).)

    Talk to a Lawyer

    If you're facing criminal charges, talk to a criminal defense lawyer. Some lawyers practice in both state and federal courts, while others might practice in only one or the other. You'll want to find a defense attorney who understands the ins and outs of the court where your case will be handled.

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