Two different court systems operate in the U.S.: state and federal. Each handles criminal (and civil) cases, but how do you know whether yours will be heard in federal court? Jurisdiction is tied to the facts of your case. Federal courts handle matters fulfilling certain criteria, such as whether a state or U.S. law was alleged to have been broken. You’ll likely be headed to federal court if your case meets those criteria. Still, both the state and federal governments may have the authority to hear your case, which means it could be handled by both.
The Difference Between State and Federal Crimes
Your case will go to federal court if the U.S. government has jurisdiction over it. Jurisdiction means that a certain court is authorized to hear the matter.
Whether the state or federal government has jurisdiction depends on the facts. A state crime is one that has violated state laws. For example, an Iowa court would hear your case if you were alleged to have violated Iowa Code § 321J.2 (operating while under the influence).
A federal crime is one that:
- Violates federal law,
- Violates the U.S. Constitution,
- Is committed on federal property, or
- Is committed against a federal employee or agent.
Sometimes the state and the federal government have jurisdiction over a case. When this happens, both courts can hear the matter. For instance, if you were accused of kidnapping and found not guilty in an Iowa court, a federal court could try the case, provided the offense meets the federal definition of kidnapping.
Allowing a state and federal court to hear a case does not violate the double jeopardy principle – the doctrine protecting people from being tried for the same crime twice. That’s because the state and federal governments are separate sovereigns.
How Does the Federal Court System Work?
The federal court system is comprised of three levels: district courts, circuit courts, and the United States Supreme Court.
District courts are the trial courts where criminal cases are heard initially. There are 94 of them in the U.S. If you are alleged to have committed a federal crime in Iowa, your case will go to the Northern District or Southern District Court.
The Northern District Court, headquartered in Cedar Rapids and has a Courthouse in Sioux City, comprises 52 counties. It is separated into the Cedar Rapids Division, the Western Division, the Central Division, and the Eastern Division.
The Southern District Court is comprised of 47 counties. Its headquarters are in Des Moines, which is the Central Division. Other Courthouses are in Davenport (Easter Division) and Council Bluffs (Central Division).
The federal government also has 13 Circuit Courts, which hear appeals. An appeal is a request to have a higher court review a lower court’s decision. If your case was initially tried in an Iowa District Court and you believe that an egregious legal error affected the outcome, you could take it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, located in St. Louis, Missouri.
The highest court in the land is the United States Supreme Court. It hears appeals of Circuit Court decisions. It can also hear appeals from cases tried in state courts if the matter concerns federal law.
What Happens When a Case Goes to Federal Court?
If your case falls under federal jurisdiction, the judicial process involves several steps.
- Pretrial hearings: You will make an initial appearance before a federal judge who informs you of the charges brought against you, determines whether you should be granted pretrial release, and decides whether probable cause exists to believe a crime was committed and you committed it. You will also be scheduled for an arraignment where you can plead guilty or not guilty.
- Trial: If you plead not guilty, a trial will be held in a federal district court. A U.S. Attorney will prosecute. They must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction.
- Sentencing: A guilty finding or plea will lead to sentencing. The judge may consider the evidence and refer to the U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines to determine the severity of penalties, such as the amount of a fine, the length of a prison term, and whether you owe restitution.
- Appeal: The outcomes of federal trials can be affected by legal or procedural errors, such as a misapplication of the law or juror misconduct. If a mistake hurt your case, you could ask the Circuit Court to review and reverse the judgment. If the Circuit Court affirms the District Court’s decision, you could take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. Note that the Supreme Court is not required to hear appeals. It could decline your case.
Schedule a Consultation with Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger
The federal judicial system can be complicated. Thus, it’s crucial to retain the services of a lawyer familiar with the process. Our Iowa City team is skilled at fighting in federal courts and knows what it takes to seek results.
To speak with us about your case, call (319) 499-5524 or submit an online contact form, and we’ll get back to you promptly.