The United States has two parallel court systems: the state system and the federal system. Local governments also have municipal courts and traffic courts to enforce laws within their boundaries.
Jurisdiction refers to a court’s power to hear cases. Jurisdiction must be established before a court can hear any case. There is subject matter jurisdiction that refers to what the case is about. Personal jurisdiction refers to the court’s ability to bring a person under its authority.
For example, state courts have jurisdiction to hear cases that arise under state law. Federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases that arise under federal law. Generally, crimes are tried in courts in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred. Sometimes, a crime crosses state lines. In such cases, the crime is deemed to have occurred in both jurisdictions. State criminal laws relate to crimes that happen within the state’s borders, while federal criminal laws must meet the Constitutional test of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government does not have the authority to regulate criminal conduct within states unless the conduct affects interstate commerce. Therefore, federal criminal laws usually involve conduct occurring in more than one state, such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, racketeering and organized crime, etc. In addition, federal law can prohibit crimes against the federal government such as tax evasion, treason, etc.
A court must also have personal jurisdiction over a party in order to try that person for a crime. If a party leaves the state after commission of a crime, a state must petition to have the party extradited back to the state. This can sometimes take a while, especially if the accused is charged with crimes in more than one state. Unfortunately, an accused can also leave the country, and not all countries have treaties with the U.S. to return defendants for criminal prosecution. A good example of lack of personal jurisdiction affecting law enforcement today is internet crime. Most of us have received those annoying, fraudulent emails from Nigeria or other foreign countries trying to troll the internet for money. Although I’m sure no one in this class has fallen for such a ploy, people still do get sucked into “get rich quick” schemes and often follow the fraudulent instructions in the email to send money in the hopes of receiving the millions of dollars promised in return. The U.S. government is unable to prosecute most of these crimes originating in third world countries over whose members we have no personal jurisdiction.