What is Federal Court?

February 27th, 2017 by Attorney Dan Carman

Lexington Criminal Defense Lawyer
Recent national headlines have been following the story and recent federal jury conviction and death sentencing of Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof. According to police and Roof’s own words during the trial, he is responsible for killing nine black people, acts committed in the hopes of starting a race war.

Roof was facing the death penalty in federal court on 33 charges, including hate crimes, firearm use, and obstruction of religion. A second death penalty trial on nine murder charges is planned in South Carolina state court. While the accusations against Roof are some of the most serious that can be brought, his situation is a good illustration of how the same set of circumstances can be used to bring criminal charges against one person in both federal and state court because the federal and state governments are considered to be separate entities.

Federal courts are established by Congress to decide on disputes which:

  • Are between citizens of different states if more than $75,000 is at issue,
  • Have the United States as a party,
  • Concern certain areas of law such as bankruptcies or copyrights, or
  • Involve violations of the Constitution or laws passed by Congress.

As far as federal criminal laws are concerned, prohibited offenses involve a federal or national issue. For example, mail fraud and interstate trafficking are both common violations of federal criminal law. The highest federal court in the country is the Supreme Court of the United States, located in Washington, D.C.

The state of Kentucky has two courts that hear federal cases. One is the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, which has four divisions that serve 53 counties. The other is the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, which has six divisions that serve 67 counties, including Boone, Campbell, Fayette, Knox, Trimble, and Wolfe counties. The headquarters for the Eastern District is in Lexington at the Federal Building on Barr Street.

In contrast, state courts are created by state constitutions to interpret state laws. The lowest level of criminal courts in Kentucky are the District Courts, which have jurisdiction over many areas such as child abuse and neglect, domestic violence cases, juvenile matters, city and county ordinances, traffic offenses, and misdemeanors. Among other duties, the mid-level Circuit Courts preside over capital offenses and felonies. The next highest court is the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which hears cases from the Circuit Courts, except for criminal cases that carry sentences of death, life imprisonment, or imprisonment of at least 20 years. If those sentences are involved, appeals are taken directly to the highest state court, the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Some criminal acts are crimes under both systems and may be prosecuted in either federal or state court, depending on the circumstances. For example, a defendant accused of a murder that occurred in a private home or even a state park would be charged under state law. However, if the murder took place in a federal courthouse or a national forest, then it would be a federal offense. Murder also becomes a federal crime if the victim is a federal law enforcement official (such as an FBI agent) as opposed to a private citizen. If a defendant is accused of kidnapping and never leaves Kentucky, then he or she will be charged under state law. If that same defendant takes the victim across state lines into Tennessee, then federal law will be applied. Robbing a store would be charged under state law, but robbing a bank that has federally insured deposits would be charged under federal law.

Whether you are under investigation, have been arrested, or have been charged, it is critical that you consult with a knowledgeable defense attorney as soon as possible. Conveniently located in Lexington, the Carman Law Firm is capable of handling both state and federal criminal law issues. We are dedicated to helping those who find themselves struggling with serious criminal accusations, and we have successfully represented countless individuals who have been where you are now. Everyone deserves a fair trial; and as criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, skilled representation. Call us today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.