The United States operates under a system of government power-sharing called federalism. State governments and the national government have considerable overlapping areas of responsibility. One of the most important of these is the administration of justice.
State lawmaking power in North Carolina not only shapes the criminal laws passed by the state legislature, but also local ordinances and regulations. Federal laws also establish criminal penalties for various offenses. What many people find confusing is the pattern of determining whether a particular act is a violation of state law, of federal law, or both. Consider this:
Offenses that take place in a state and affect only residents of that state are usually controlled only by state laws, not federal ones. For instance, traffic violations in North Carolina can be prosecuted only under state law.
Offenses that take place across state lines and those that violate fundamental powers of the national government are usually punished by federal law, but not state law. For example, counterfeiting currency is a federal crime, but not a state one.
Some acts that have effects within a state but also potentially cross-state or national borders may be prosecuted under both state laws and federal laws. Of course, each set of laws may define a crime in slightly different terms and assign very different penalties for a conviction. Narcotics trafficking, for instance, is illegal both under federal laws and North Carolina statutes, and each offense has a range of punishments depending on the precise circumstances of the crime.
Precedents and consequences
State courts and federal courts are each relying on parallel—but different—sets of criminal laws. They also have different traditions for courtroom procedure and decorum. But perhaps the most important distinction is the precedent law that judges use to interpret what the law means.
North Carolina legal precedents are set by decisions of the Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. District courts are expected to render verdicts consistent with the legal history of cases from these upper judicial bodies.
Three different federal District Courts also operate in North Carolina—called, reasonably enough, the North Carolina Eastern District, Middle District, and Western District Courts. New federal cases always begin in federal district courts. If a decision from one of these courts is appealed, the case goes to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit is the superior court to District Courts from several states in the mid-Atlantic South: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The federal District Courts in those states are obliged to follow the precedents of Fourth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court opinions; they are not required to give the same respect to opinions from other federal Circuit Courts.
It's confusing, but only at first
The point you should take away from this: federal criminal charges are distinctly different from state charges, and they are governed by a completely novel set of laws, traditions, and precedents. This is true even though the federal courtroom may be located in North Carolina.
If you have been accused of a federal crime, it is essential that your criminal defense attorney be admitted to practice law before the federal District Court where your case will be heard; each District Court and Circuit Court sets its own admission standards. Ideally, your lawyer should also have had previous trial experience in a federal courtroom.
At Speaks Law Firm, our Wilmington federal defense attorneys are thoroughly experienced in handling pre-trial conferences, plea negotiations, and courtroom defense in federal District Court and appeals in Circuit Court. Call us at 910-341-7570 in New Hanover County, or statewide, toll-free at 877-593-4233, to schedule a conference about your defense.