While trying to stop a situation from getting overly complicated, at one time or another, all of us have heard or said something like, “let’s not make a federal case out of it.” When it comes to criminal practice, “making a federal case of it” can have extremely significant consequences for both the individual charged and the attorney handling the case. Some lawyers who rarely practice in federal court are shocked at the differences between state and federal practice. In order to handle a federal criminal case, a lawyer needs to be well-versed in the procedure and substantive law that applies in federal court.
There are many reasons that cases are pursued in federal versus state court. For example, the priorities of a particular Administration, as well as the local United States Attorney’s Office, often impact whether the federal government targets a particular case or type of case. Regardless of governmental priorities, it is absolutely true that in order to bring a criminal case in federal court, a federal nexus of some sort must exist. This “nexus” is often found in the particular federal law at issue, or the location of the alleged crime.
For example, the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution allows Congress to “regulate Commerce . . . . among the several States.” At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, courts have interpreted this clause to mean that federal prosecutors can make a federal case out of a set of facts, if they can show that the crime was “in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce.” The question of whether some activity is “in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce” is very complicated, and requires an attorney who is well-versed in handling such constitutional issues.
Other crimes are prosecuted in the federal court system not because of the Commerce Clause, but instead because the case involves some other federal nexus or connection. For example, a crime against a federal official is generally prosecuted in federal court. Many crimes that take place on property owned or leased by the federal government end up in the federal court system. When someone allegedly defrauds a federal program or gets federal money, such cases often end up in a federal court.
Although there are many crimes that can be brought to the federal courts, only a handful of cases are taken up by federal prosecutors, who are commonly called Assistant United States Attorneys or AUSAs. An AUSA usually will only bring a case to federal court if it is a large investigation, involves federal actors or property, or is otherwise a high-profile matter. As a result, cases in federal court are generally larger, more complex, and involve far more evidence than a similar case handled in the state court system.
For the reasons noted above, criminal prosecutions in federal court are very different than state criminal cases. Although most accomplished federal criminal lawyers are able to handle criminal cases in the state system, not all state criminal practitioners are competent or capable in the federal criminal system. In addition to significant differences in substantive and procedural law, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are particularly complex and require a specialized knowledge that a relatively limited number of lawyers possess.
The lawyers at Kish & Lietz are well qualified to handle any matter in federal court, both at the trial level and on appeal. We have handled virtually every type of federal criminal case, from the relatively smallest theft offenses, all the way up to large international fraud cases. In our years of experience in the federal system, we have represented thousands of clients in federal court. Although we respect and appreciate the seriousness of federal criminal charges, we do not shy away from them. If you would like to talk to us about a federal criminal matter, feel free to call (404) 588-3991, or contact us online.