Understanding Jurisdiction in a Criminal Case

Jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear and decide cases and to impose punishment. For criminal proceedings, there are two types of jurisdiction: state and federal. So what determines which court has the authority to hear a case?

Typically, federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over federal offenses and state courts have exclusive jurisdiction over state offenses. In some cases, certain conduct will qualify as both federal and state offenses.

Federal jurisdiction

In general, federal jurisdiction will be in effect when an offense:

  • Occurred on property owned or controlled by the federal government
  • Crossed state lines or involved interstate commerce
  • Occurred on a ship flying the American flag
  • Occurred in a foreign country with intent to harm those within the U.S. (i.e., terrorism, cybercrime)

Federal jurisdiction may also apply to crimes that occur on Native American reservations, depending on the severity of the offense and agreements between the tribe and the government.

State jurisdiction

If a crime occurs within a state’s borders or within three miles of its coastline, it will generally be prosecuted in a state court. The exception is if the crime occurred on federal land; then it will usually be considered a federal offense.

States have different courts to handle different state offenses. Felonies committed by adults and misdemeanors are usually divided between different courts, while offenses committed by minors are handled by state juvenile courts.

Concurrent jurisdiction

There are circumstances where more than one court is entitled to hear a case. This includes when a crime is committed in more than one state, or when both state and federal laws are violated. The first court to exercise jurisdiction over a defendant is usually the first court to try the case, unless it releases jurisdiction to another court.

The Cogdell Law Firm is a full service criminal litigation and appellate law firm. We provide client-focused representation at all stages of the process, whether our clients are seeking to avoid charges, have been charged, or are seeking reversal of a conviction on appeal. When results matter most, contact Dan Cogdell at (713) 426-2244 or dan@cogdell-law.com.