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Jurisdiction for Federal Crimes

Any first-year law student can tell you about the importance of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction in the legal context refers to the power of a particular court to enter a binding judgment in a specific dispute on the parties. Jurisdiction comes in two varieties: personal jurisdiction is the court’s power over the parties to a dispute, while subject matter jurisdiction is the court’s power to decide the specific dispute itself. For example, a bankruptcy court cannot enter a judgment in a state criminal case because the bankruptcy court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. In other words, it lacks the authority to decide a state criminal case. In general, a court may not enter a judgment against a foreigner residing in another country because the court lacks personal jurisdiction over that foreigner. But recent events show that this is not always the case.

When Can a Federal Court Hear a Criminal Case Against Me?

Recent activities of the U.S. Attorney General and her staff against individuals residing abroad (a.k.a., the charges against FIFA officials as well as terrorism charges against foreign nationals) have caused some to question the limits of the personal jurisdiction of federal courts. If federal courts can hear criminal cases of nationals located in foreign countries, some of whom have never set foot in the United States, then who is safe from the federal government’s long reach?

A federal crimes prosecution can be brought against (and hence a federal court will typically have personal jurisdiction over) any person who commits a federal crime:

  • While on land that is owned or controlled by the federal government, such as national parks and military installations (even those military installations located overseas);
  • While on Native American reservations (in some cases);
  • While on a ship that is flying the American flag, even if the ship is located in foreign or international waters;
  • Where the crime involves interstate commerce or the crossing of state lines (a kidnapper who takes a child from one state into another state, or a drug smuggler who is caught while transporting drugs from one state to another); or
  • Where the criminal intends the criminal act to occur inside the United States (such as a cybercrime or terrorist attack).

So while the reach of the federal government’s law enforcement arm is far, it is not limitless.

Why is Federal Personal Jurisdiction Important?

While it is not common for cases to be dismissed because a court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant, the recent actions of the Department of Justice suggests this issue may come up more frequently in the future. If a court lacks jurisdiction, then it may not proceed with a criminal case before it. But it is important to note that when it comes to personal jurisdiction, a court can acquire jurisdiction over you personally – even if the court did not have jurisdiction previously – if you take certain actions, such as appearing in person in court without protecting your rights.

In federal criminal cases, it is important that your rights are protected by experienced counsel. Attorney Jeff Weiner has represented numerous clients accused of federal crimes. His top priority is ensuring that the court and government do not overstep their bounds and that your rights are protected and respected. Are you charged with a federal offense? Contact the office of Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. for a free consultation today by calling (305) 670-9919.

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