Making a federal case out of it: petty offenses, misdemeanors, and infractions in federal court.
Some people are surprised to learn that a simple ticket or infraction that they received has resulted in them being summoned to a federal court. One might ask why they’re being prosecuted -- and how they ended up -- in federal court. Attorney Jeffrey T. Stavroff answers these questions here.
How did I end up in federal court for a "petty offense" (or "misdemeanor" or "infraction")?Imagine that you're in the state of Ohio and receive a violation for any of the following offenses: drunk driving (termed OVI under Ohio law, referring to impaired driving); speeding (or committing any minor traffic offense); carrying a concealed weapon; or trespassing. These offenses are generally misdemeanor level offenses under Ohio law. Further, the people who violate these laws are generally prosecuted by state prosecutor in state court. However, it's possible that a federal prosecutor may prosecute one of these offenders in federal court. It all depends on (1) the type of law that is alleged to have been violated, and (2) where the alleged violation occurred.
Understanding federal jurisdiction.Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction; their jurisdiction comes from Congress and the laws it enacts. In criminal law, individual states have jurisdiction to prosecute individuals who violate their laws within their borders. The federal government has jurisdiction of specified federal crimes. However, the federal government also has jurisdiction to prosecute offenders who commit crimes on federal property, even if the offense is not a federal offense.
For example, the traffic offense of speeding is not a federal crime. Every state, including Ohio, has a law that prohibits excessive speeding in a motor vehicle. Therefore, a person who is stopped by a federal law enforcement officer for speeding on a federal facility or property will be charged with speed under Ohio state law, but will be prosecuted by the federal government in the appropriate federal district court. This made possible by the Assimilative Crimes Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute individuals under state law where (1) there is no federal law in place that prohibits that conduct, and (2) the violation occurs on federal property. In other words, where no federal law exists for offenses that occur on federal property, federal prosecutors can use the Assimilative Crimes Act to prosecute individuals under state law.
Yes: even a simple traffic violation under state law can land you in federal court. The same applies for other misdemeanors and petty offenses. The offender will receive a "federal violation notice" (similar to a traffic ticket) and be ordered to appear in federal court.
Classifications of misdemeanors and petty offenses under federal law.Like Ohio law, federal law breaks down crimes as felonies and misdemeanors. However, the penalty levels for federal misdemeanors differ from Ohio state misdemeanors. Federal law classifies misdemeanors into classes, which are punishable as follows: (1) class A, imprisonment of not more than 1 year, a fine of not more than $100,000; (2) class B, imprisonment of not more than 6 months, a fine of not more than $5,000; (3) class C, imprisonment of not more than 30 days, a fine of not more than $5,000; and (4) infraction, imprisonment of not more than 5 days, a fine of not more than $5,000.
Federal law also uses the term "petty offense" to define class B misdemeanors, class C misdemeanors, and infractions.
The procedure.Misdemeanors and petty offenses that occur on federal property are prosecuted by the United States Attorney's Office of the judicial district where the offense occurred. A misdemeanor or petty offense that is prosecuted in federal court may be issued on a federal violation notice. A federal violation notice is similar in form to a traffic ticket: it contains a summary of the offense(s) that a federal law enforcement officer believes were committed. A different federal agency, called the Central Violations Bureau, is responsible for processing federal violation notices and payments received for such violations. Although these misdemeanors and petty offenses are "petty" and not nearly as severe as a felony offense, they must not be ignored. Failing to pay the notice or appear in court could result in the issuance of an arrest warrant.