In criminal law jurisdiction and locale can make a huge difference in the level of crime you are charged with and the penalties associated therein. The United States of America was built upon the concept of federalism, wherein each individual state had sovereignty. States were designated as the caregiver of criminal laws and budget. Over the years, the federal government has asserted more and more power over states, and even developed its own criminal system. As it stands, an individual can be charged for a crime such as drug trafficking at both the state and the federal level. The penalties, however, will be different. What is true at the state and federal level, is likewise true when comparing regional statutes and penalties. For example, the state will have drunk driving laws, but each county, city, or municipality will have different statutes or even penalties associated with it. New York City local statutes prevent citizens from purchasing mace, whereas 15 miles out it is legal to own and carry it.

This is the fourth in a series of posts reviewing last term’s criminal cases in the United States Supreme Court and previewing the new term.

Habeas corpus presents the classic federalism problem in criminal law: how can federal courts overturn flawed state-court judgments while maintaining due respect for state sovereignty and the autonomy of state criminal-justice systems?  But federalism issues can also appear in criminal cases that originate in federal court.  In its new term, the Supreme Court has at least two such cases.

First, in United States v. Johnson, the Court will consider whether a battery conviction in Florida state court counts as a violent crime for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act, a federal sentencing statute.  Although “battery” normally evokes images of serious violent crime, Florida law defines battery so that it includes any nonconsensual touching, regardless of risk of injury.  For that reason, the Florida Supreme Court has already ruled that battery is not a violent crime for state-law purposes.  Thus, in Johnson, the United States Supreme Court is confronted with a question of whether it should defer to state-court characterizations of state crimes for purposes of implementing a federal statute.

Second, in United States v. Weyrauch, the Court must decide whether a state official can be convicted of honest-services fraud based on a conflict of interest that did not violate state law.  (This is one of three new cases in which the Court will consider various dimensions of the federal crime of honest-services fraud.) 

Normally, we expect each state to define the ethical duties of its own public officials.  This seems a basic attribute of sovereignty.  Thus, the theory of prosecution in Weyrauch — that the defendant violated a uniform federal ethical standard for state officials — strikes me as a rather extraordinary (and, I daresay, unfortunate) federal intrusion into the administration of state government.

Obviously these discrepencies can make it difficult for visitors of an area or someone who has recently moved to that area to be able to keep track of the legislation and stay in accordance with the law. This becomes painfully obvious when travellers coming from the southern United States where gun laws are less strict attempt to drive up the coast and become victim to the capricity in law. What is completely legal to own and transport in Virginia can literally get you a sentence of 5 years in prison in the Empire State.

In addition to statutes and criminal codes, there is also the mood or tempo of the courts who will be hearing your case. Some counties and their representatives are tougher on certain types of crime than another. A DUI in the Bronx would produce one result or offer whereas in Queens or Nassau you’d be less likely to get the same first offer due to the community stance on drunk driving.

It becomes difficult for attorneys to provide sufficient answers to the families of the accused when it comes to why their son or daughter just received a B Felony for criminal sales or why a military veteran is looking at criminal charges for having his weapon in his car as he was driving across another state to get home for Thanksgiving. The laws and rules seem fickle to the average person, and truth be known to the average attorney, as well.

There are times when many of us question the system, and at these times it is a healthy practice to understand why the framers of our Constitution set it up this way. This system allows individuals to move to areas that align with their values or shape their area in this way. Someone who wishes to own an AR-15 can move to Texas or Virginia. Someone who doesn’t want these types of weapons in their community can move to New York or Massachusetts.

Understanding the laws in your region or the region you are staying in is as simple as checking an online law library. This is advisable for anyone and everyone who is considering a move to another state or county or even attempting a drive across country.

Any type of criminal charge usually leaves the accused frightened, stressed, and almost too depressed to function. These swirling emotions oftentimes result in a dangerous state of denial. Criminal cases need to start immediately so that the most positive resolution can be created from the situation.