In the U.S. there are state and federal courts. Which court hears a given case is largely a question of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the type of case a court may hear. In general, state courts receive their authority to hear cases from the state, while federal courts receive their authority from the U.S. Constitution. A recent incident in which three California men are facing federal charges may help illustrate why certain cases are heard by one court over another.
According to a recent news release, three men from northern California are being charged with federal crimes for the 2011 assault of a bi-racial couple. Agents involved in the federal investigation claim that the late-night attack on the couple in Linda was racially motivated. The men have been charged with two counts of hate crimes and one count of conspiracy. All three of the defendants have pled not guilty.
While state court jurisdiction is broad, federal court jurisdiction is limited. In fact, the only cases state courts cannot hear are those involving the U.S. as a party and cases involving certain federal laws. Federal courts, however, are limited to cases involving the United States as a party, the U.S. Constitution or other federal offenses, citizens from different states in matters that exceed $75,000, and some special proceedings such as bankruptcy. In some cases, the prohibited conduct may be illegal under both federal and state laws. In such cases, the matter may be heard in either state or federal court.
Questions concerning jurisdiction can be very important in criminal cases. In addition to the dramatic differences in penalties and sentencing guidelines, there may also be other strategic reasons to choose one over the other. A good defense attorney will always consider these issues and more.
Source: Fresno Bee, "Men face federal charges in Yuba County attack," Jan. 31, 2013