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When will a criminal case be heard in federal court?

A Louisianan may be charged with a crime at the state level or at the federal level. The court in which he or she is charged will affect how his or her case proceeds. Federal courts have jurisdiction that is limited compared to that of state courts. Cases that appear in federal courts are ones that Congress has specifically determined to be under federal jurisdiction, as well as cases that involve constitutional disputes.

Despite the limited jurisdiction of federal courts, there are still numerous types of federal crimes that may be tried in federal court. For example, when a person has been accused of violating a federal law or violating the U.S. Constitution, his or her criminal trial will proceed in federal court. Additionally, when an alleged criminal act occurs on federal property, whether a military reservation or a national park, the matter will be covered by federal jurisdiction and therefore heard in federal court.

Sometimes it may be unclear to an accused why he or she is being tried in federal court. For example, a person who has been charged with robbery may anticipate that such a charge will proceed at the state level. However, if an accused has allegedly robbed a bank in which a federal agency insures the bank's deposits, this alleged act of theft may constitute a federal crime and thus will be under the jurisdiction of a federal court.

A common federal crime involves illegal use of the U.S. mail system. Although the alleged criminal act in question may appear to have only occurred in one state, the use of the mail system means that the act may have crossed state lines and actually taken place in multiple states. In these instances, where a crime has taken place in more than one state, the federal government will likely be found to have jurisdiction.

Being confronted with federal criminal charges can be scary. Fortunately, an individual who is facing federal charges can seek legal counsel for help answering any questions he or she might have about pending charges.

Source: FindLaw, "Federal vs. State Courts - Key Differences," accessed March 18, 2016

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