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Criminal Defenses | Defense Issues » Jurisdiction Defense

Jurisdiction Defense

What is court jurisdiction?

Jurisdiction is the power to enforce legal judgments.  Does the court have criminal jurisdiction?  Does the defendant have a criminal jurisdiction defense of lack of jurisdiction?

What is the definition of criminal jurisdiction?

Criminal jurisdiction is the power of the court to hear a criminal charge and enforce a remedy.

As a practical matter, one limitation upon the government’s jurisdiction to enforce criminal laws is individual privacy. The government has even adopted privacy as a limitation on government power as matter of public policy. Recent examples of this have been the federal “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and the federal non-enforcement policy where individuals are compliant with state marijuana laws. Vigilant assertion of privacy rights, and the right to remain silent, can help keep an overreaching government at bay.

What is the criminal defense of lack of jurisdiction?

The location of the alleged events and their subject matter limits jurisdiction. To prosecute an individual, the court must have proper personal and subject matter jurisdiction over the individual. Should either of these be lacking, the accused may ask the judge to dismiss charges.  This is a lack of criminal jurisdiction; one of many criminal defenses

The defense attorney can raise the defense for any Minnesota offense level.

Why do courts care about jurisdiction?

Courts have a self-interest in limiting court jurisdiction.

If a court threatens the exertion of power but it cannot, in fact, exert that power; then it lacks jurisdiction.  Worse, the court loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people – like the story of the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!”

Courts wisely refrain from asserting jurisdiction beyond reach.  Prudent legislation and laws do the same.

Sooner or later though, an elected official overreacts to political pressure.  The legislature enacts a law goes too far.  When that happens, courts may strike down that law.  But courts need a party in a case and their lawyer to ask them to do so, first.  If the court lacks criminal jurisdiction, the judge dismisses the case.

Criminal Jurisdiction: Geographic limits to power

A State’s geographic territory limits its power in criminal cases.

At common law, a state could make conduct, or its result, a crime if within its geographic borders.  A prosecutor could only charge a crime in a single place.

Geographic boundaries can limit jurisdiction
Geographic boundaries can limit jurisdiction

Today, states have claim expanded jurisdiction including:

  • conduct within a state that results in a crime elsewhere; and
  • offenses commenced outside the state but completed within it, even by a defendant outside the state.

Still, criminal jurisdiction has its limits.

Minnesota Statutes Section 609.025, entitled “JURISDICTION OF STATE” asserts:

“A person may be convicted and sentenced under the law of this state if the person:
(1) commits an offense in whole or in part within this state; or
(2) being without the state, causes, aids or abets another to commit a crime within the state; or
(3) being without the state, intentionally causes a result within the state prohibited by the criminal laws of this state.
It is not a defense that the defendant’s conduct is also a criminal offense under the laws of another state or of the United States or of another country.”

So, what about where a defendant is outside the state? The prosecutor cannot put a defendant on trial without first being in custody; or submitting to the criminal jurisdiction of that state.  The prosecutor can do this by using the state’s version of the Uniform Criminal Extradition ActSee, Minnesota Statutes Sections 629.01 to 629.29.

In personam or personal jurisdiction

Criminal prosecutions are generally based on in personam jurisdiction, often called personal jurisdiction.  The term means jurisdiction over the person.  It means the court, the state, has power over the person.  In courts with criminal jurisdiction, this means the power to take a person’s liberty or life.

Sentencing jurisdiction

If a court convicts, the court then has sentencing jurisdiction. Sentencing jurisdiction is the power to impose and execute a criminal penalty.

jurisdiction in rem 

In rem jurisdiction means power over the thing.  Imagine a ship in the port of Duluth owned by a person halfway across the world.  The state cannot assert jurisdiction over the ship’s owner but can seize the ship in its port, by force.  This basis for court jurisdiction is less common than personal jurisdiction.  But, most asset forfeiture cases are based on in rem jurisdiction.

Though the law sometimes labels asset forfeiture cases civil, they are usually based on alleged criminal activity.  Forfeiture law is a big topic, referenced here for its in rem jurisdictional basis.

Subject matter jurisdiction

Though state courts hear most criminal claims, some are in federal court under federal laws.  Subject matter jurisdiction can come up in either, but more often in federal court.

Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear cases of a specific subject or type of criminal proceeding.  An example in Minnesota is the law on the age limits for children in juvenile court vs. adult criminal jurisdiction.

Concurrent jurisdictions of sovereigns

Another jurisdiction issue to be aware of is concurrent jurisdiction over a case by more than one sovereign authority.  In Minnesota this could include tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction. And it could include potential criminal prosecutions by more than one state – see above. To the extent there is any body with international criminal authority, you could consider that as well.

One way this has frequent real world implications is when a prosecutor coerces a reluctant witness to testify.  Often, that witness has Fifth Amendment concerns and fears criminal prosecution based upon the testimony the prosecutor wants to elicit.

Prosecutors will often then offer the witness some sort of immunity to attempt to strip away their Fifth Amendment Rights.  When a criminal lawyer is representing the witness (as a witness lawyer), we may require full judicial immunity. And we may require it from every jurisdiction that could prosecute under concurrent jurisdiction: tribal, state(s), federal, international.

Attorney Thomas Gallagher explains the jurisdiction defense
Attorney Thomas Gallagher on the jurisdiction defense

Criminal jurisdiction defense

Part of the criminal defense lawyer’s work is to gather facts and then consider legal defenses present in those facts.

Though a jurisdiction defense is uncommon, we look for them.

A law, a police officer, or prosecutor may overreach. When they do, the defense attorney can ask the judge to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.  If the judge agrees, the judge dismisses the criminal case.

When a client is outside Minnesota, we should look at the basis for criminal jurisdiction, or the lack of jurisdiction.

Otherwise, at a some point in the court process before trial; if the defense does not challenge jurisdiction, the defense may waive, or give up, any jurisdiction defense. See, e.g., Rule 10.02, Minnesota Rules of Criminal Procedure, Motions Attacking Court Jurisdiction in Misdemeanor Cases.

Venue vs. jurisdiction

Many confuse venue with jurisdiction.   After all, both involve location, territory, and boundaries.

But if a court lacks jurisdiction over a case, it must be dismissed.  (A prosecutor in some other jurisdiction could still file charges, however.)

So, what happens if a prosecutor files a case in the wrong venue, but the court has jurisdiction? Then, the court may be move the case to a more convenient forum or location within the jurisdiction

The District Courts of Minnesota are one jurisdiction.  The court in a county is a venue.

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So, both jurisdiction and venue connote the ability or convenience of prosecuting or defending a case in a particular location.  Lawyers may raise these issues. And courts may act upon them, where impractical, or inconvenient to prosecute or defend a case in a given place.

Question?  You can call Minneapolis Criminal Lawyer Thomas Gallagher at (612) 333-1500

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