Posts categorized as "criminal procedure"

What is exclusive federal subject matter jurisdiction?

When we say subject matter jurisdiction we mean the power of a court to decide a certain type of case.  Federal courts in the United States have the power to decide some types of cases but they do not have subject matter jurisdiction over every type of case in the United States.

U.S. federal courts' subject matter jurisdiction comes from the Constitution and the Congress of the United States.  If you look at Article III of the U.S. Constitution you will see a list of cases in which the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction.  These cases include, among other things, admiralty cases, patent cases, and cases between two different states (e.g., New York sues New Jersey).  

Some cases can be heard in both state and federal courts.  We can say that the federal and state courts have concurrent jurisdiction over those types of cases.

For some types of cases federal courts have exclusive federal subject matter jurisdiction - - only federal courts can decide these types of cases.  In other words, the cases cannot be heard in state court.   Some examples where federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction include the types of cases I listed above as well as bankruptcy cases and federal antitrust cases.

 When passing a law, sometimes Congress will specify that federal courts have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction.   For example, if you look at 18 USC 2338 and subsequent sections you will see that Congress established certain laws addressing terrorism and that these cases can only be heard in federal courts.



What is double jeopardy?

Double jeopardy is the principle that a defendant should not be tried twice for the same crime once he is either acquitted or convicted (or pleads guilty).  

The principle applies slightly differently in the United States because of the principle of dual sovereignty.  Each state and the federal  government is a separate sovereign, therefore, it does not violate double jeopardy for different states  to try someone twice for the same underlying crime.   Similarly, a state and the federal government may put someone on trial for the same crime.  But the same state cannot try a person twice for the same crime and the federal government cannot try someone twice for the same crime after a conviction or acquittal.  

Below is a short video on how double jeopardy applies in the United States.




What does it mean to be indicted for a crime? Is the defendant guilty?

An indictment just means that a person was charged with a crime.  The defendant is not guilty, but he was accused of committing the crime.

One special characteristic of the United States is that in federal courts and often in state courts a "grand jury" indicts the defendant.  A grand jury is a large jury, 16-23 persons, which reviews the evidence presented by the prosecutor and determines whether there is at least enough evidence to accuse the defendant of committing the crime.  Grand juries are intended to, among other things, act as a shield against meritless prosecutions.  Not all states use the grand jury system and some states only use grand juries for certain crimes.  

If the grand jury agrees that there is enough evidence the foreperson of the grand jury will sign the document with the accusations against the defendant.  We would say that the grand jury has indicted the defendant. 

Below is a short video on grand juries.



What is extraterritorial prosecution?

The term is a bit confusing.   Usually when people refer to extraterritorial prosecution they mean cases where a court in a defendant's home country prosecutes the defendant for crimes he committed in another country.  The defendant is prosecuted at home, so the prosecution is really not extraterritorial, but the crime was committed outside of the country's territorial jurisdiction.  For example, let's say David from country A commits a crime in country B and is prosecuted for the crime back in country A - - that is usually what people mean when they say extraterritorial prosecution.

In the United States federal laws usually don't apply to activity committed in other countries.  If a US national commits a crime overseas and the crime has no connection to the United States, it is very likely that federal law will not apply to his actions and he cannot be extraterritorially prosecuted back in the US.  But there are exceptions.



What do appellate courts in the US do? Do they provide the parties with a new trial?

No, on appeal there isn't a new trial.  Appellate courts in the United States are mainly responsible for determining whether the trial judge made a mistake or not.  There are no juries at the appellate level and there is usually a panel of three judges - - in some cases there might be more.  

For example, let's say there was a criminal case in a United States federal district court - - a trial level court.  And we'll say the jury in the criminal case decided that the defendant was guilty.  If the defendant appeals, he is not going to argue to the federal appellate level court (a Circuit Court of Appeals) that the jury was wrong. Instead, he will argue that the District Court judge made an important mistake.  The defendant's lawyer might argue that the judge explained the law incorrectly to the jury.  Perhaps the defendant's lawyer will argue that the judge allowed the jury to consider inadmissible evidence.  Improper jury conduct might also be the basis for an appeal and demand for a new trial.  

If an appellate court agrees that a conviction was improper it may send the case back to a trial level court for a new trial. 

An appeal from a civil case will also focus on whether the judge made a mistake.  For example, let's say a judge grants summary judgment in favor of a defendant.  The plaintiff could appeal the judge's decision on grounds that the judge failed to apply the law correctly or overlooked some important facts.  If the appellate level court decides that the judge made a mistake the court can send the case back to the trial court.

Plea Agreements: Why there are few criminal trials in the US

In the United States very few criminal cases go to trial.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that if every person in the United States demanded his right to a trial our criminal justice system would have a serious challenge.

Most people are aware that in the US a person has the option of pleading guilty or not guilty to the crime with which  he is charged.  The defendant is usually hoping for better treatment from the judge if he pleads guilty.

Typically in the US there is a period of negotiation between the prosecutor and the defendant (and the defendant's lawyer) in which the prosecutor will try to reach an agreement with the defendant to convince him to plead guilty.  These agreements are called plea agreements or plea bargains.

Often a defendant will agree to plead guilty to lesser or fewer charges.  For example, a defendant charged with robbery might agree to plead guilty to attempted robbery.  In other situations a suspect might agree to testify for the state.  In exchange, he might avoid prosecution or he might enter a plea agreement in which the prosecutor will recommend that the judge show leniency in sentencing (punishing).

Before a judge will accept a guilty plea the judge should make sure that the defendant understands that he is waiving his right to a trial.  Below is a video briefly discussing plea agreements.









Do lawyers select jurors in the United States?

Not exactly.

The jury process begins by summoning people to the courthouse.  Lawyers have no control over this phase of jury selection.  If you are a United States citizen, you will at some point in your life almost certainly have to go to court to appear for jury duty.    Through this system, a  court will generate a large pool of prospective jurors.  If you visit a courthouse you might see hundreds of people waiting to find out whether they are going to serve on jury.

The next phase is to find the right people to serve as jurors for each case from this pool of prospective jurors.  Prospective jurors must answer questions to determine whether they are appropriate.   Depending on the case, sometimes lawyers, sometimes judges, and sometimes both lawyers and judges will question the prospective jurors.   Some criteria are obvious - - a prosecutor can't have his mother serve on a jury.  

Lawyers are allowed to eliminate some people from the jury pool.  For example, if a lawyer thinks a prospective juror will be biased the judge may allow the lawyer to exclude that person from the jury for that case.  Eventually, the judge and the lawyers will settle on a jury and those not selected will either go home or will be sent to a different courtroom to see whether they are suitable for a different case .


Is the Attorney General of the United States part of the executive or the judicial branch?

The Attorney General is part of the executive branch.  The Attorney General is in charge of the Department of Justice (commonly known as the DOJ).  

Among other things, the DOJ enforces federal criminal law in the United States.  Federal prosecutors who work for the DOJ are known as United States Attorneys.


What happens if someone commits a crime in one state and runs to another?

 Extradition is where one state transfers a defendant to another state to face trial.   The United States Constitution (Article IV Section 2) requires states to extradite persons accused of crime.  There is also federal law requiring extradition.  

Each state has its own rules governing extradition but generally speaking, when one state demands that a second state extradite a defendant,  the defendant must be extradited.