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Federal Criminal Law

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CRIMINAL PROCEDURE IN THE UNITED STATES The English colonists who came to North America in the 17th century brought their legal traditions with them. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the English common law-including the adversarial approach to criminal procedure-remained as the basis of law in the United States.

The United States has a federal system, meaning that power is divided between a central authority and many state or local authorities. Thus, there are 51 different sets of criminal procedural law in the United States-that of the federal government and one for each of the 50 states. In addition, separate criminal procedures exist for military courts and for federal territories. The procedures adopted by each state and the federal government vary. However, the shared heritage of the English common law provides significant similarities in the basic structure of the process. Furthermore, the Constitution of the United States imposes some limitations on the states in formulating their criminal procedure.

Federal Criminal Procedure A person prosecuted in the federal courts on a charge of violating a federal criminal law is subject to federal criminal procedure. Federal procedure is governed, first of all, by certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution, especially those contained in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution). The Constitution guarantees certain procedural rights that the government must afford a federal criminal defendant, unless the defendant knowingly and voluntarily waives (surrenders) these rights (see Constitution of the United States: Rights of the Accused).

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures and describes how law enforcement officials can obtain warrants (court orders permitting a search or arrest). The Fifth Amendment protects individuals accused of crimes from having to testify against themselves and from being tried more than once for the same offense. It also requires that any criminal charges result from the proceedings of a grand jury-a body of citizens convened to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to have a trial. Finally, the Fifth Amendment requires that government procedures adhere to due process of law, which means basic standards of fairness and equity. Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant is guaranteed a speedy and public jury trial during which the defendant will get notice of the charges he or she faces and may call witnesses and face his or her accusers. The Sixth Amendment also guarantees that the trial will take place in the district where the alleged crime was committed and that the defendant will have the assistance of legal counsel. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments.

These constitutional guarantees provide a starting point for federal criminal procedure. The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, issued by the Supreme Court of the United States and enacted by the Congress of the United States in 1945, supplement the constitutional guarantees. The rules contain detailed provisions relating to the pretrial, trial, and appeal stages of federal prosecutions. Other details of federal criminal procedure are covered in federal statutes enacted by the U.S. Congress. Finally, a substantial part of the law of federal criminal procedure is found in the reported decisions of the federal courts.

B State Criminal Procedure A person prosecuted in the courts of a particular state on a charge of violating the criminal laws of that state is subject to state criminal procedure. State criminal procedure is found in the constitution, statutes, rules, and judicial decisions of that state. Furthermore, portions of the U.S. Constitution are applicable to state criminal defendants. 
State constitutions generally guarantee a state criminal defendant most of the same rights that a federal defendant is provided by the Bill of Rights. Some states have provisions that vary from federal constitutional requirements. For example, in a number of states criminal charges need not result from the proceedings of a grand jury. Instead, a judge determines whether or not the accused person should be tried after reviewing the evidence during a preliminary hearing. States may provide greater rights for criminal defendants than the U.S. Constitution guarantees.

The Supreme Court of the United States has required states to provide to criminal defendants most of the procedural guarantees in the U.S. Constitution. For example, states must recognize the Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. In addition to these specific rights, the states are required by the U.S. Constitution to guarantee due process. The 14th Amendment, passed after the American Civil War (1861-1865), reads in part, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Like the 5th Amendment, which applies to federal criminal procedure, the 14th Amendment requires the states to maintain certain minimum standards of fundamental fairness in their laws concerning criminal procedure. For instance, prosecutors may not systematically exclude members of a particular race or gender from a jury. State convictions that result from proceedings that violate the minimum standards required by the 14th Amendment can be set aside by the federal courts through the process of appeal if the state courts themselves do not do so first.

JURISDICTION For a criminal conviction to be valid, both the sovereign power (the state or federal government) and the specific court that tries the accused must have jurisdiction (authority) over the crime charged. Jurisdiction refers to a court's authority to hear and decide a case. The jurisdiction of state courts is restricted by the geographical boundaries of the state. Jurisdiction is also limited by the type or subject matter of a case. For example, a family court with jurisdiction over child custody and placement cannot try a murder case.

According to the laws of some states, a crime is committed in only one place and only the sovereign that controls that place has the power to try the accused for the wrongdoing. Therefore, if a woman standing in one state shoots and kills a man who is just over the state line in another state, the murder is committed in the state where the lethal bullet hit the victim. Only the state where the victim was injured has jurisdiction to try the woman. However, some states have enacted statutes conferring jurisdiction on the state where the crime was partly committed.

Because in many instances only the state where the crime was committed may prosecute the accused, laws have been enacted providing a process for acquiring custody of individuals accused of committing a crime in one state who then flee to another state or country. The U.S. Constitution provides for interstate extradition-that is, each state must surrender people who flee to that state upon a request by another state in which the person is accused of committing a crime. Many countries have adopted treaties that specify how suspected criminals who flee from one country to another can be returned to the country from which they fled.

About the Courts of Appeals

Courts of Appeals, formerly Circuit Courts of Appeals, in the federal judiciary system of the United States, courts created by Congress in 1891 to relieve the Supreme Court of its great burden of work and thus to give speedier justice to litigants. These courts make decisions on appeals from lower federal courts subject to review in the U.S. Supreme Court. In practice, however, the Supreme Court reviews only a few cases-usually those that involve a novel constitutional question or an interpretation of federal statutory law when there is a conflict among the various courts of appeals. The Supreme Court rules on the law and then returns the case to the appeals court for disposition on the basis of that ruling. Cases involving the constitutionality of legislation or the interpretation of treaties between the U.S. and other governments need not pass through the courts of appeals; they may be appealed directly from the lower courts to the Supreme Court.

A court of appeals functions in the District of Columbia and in each of the 11 federal judicial circuits. In addition, a court of appeals for the federal circuit was created in 1982 to review certain cases involving copyright, tax, patent, and federal employment law, as well as claims against the U.S. for money damages. Each court consists of at least three judges appointed for life by the president and approved by the Senate.

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