When it comes to federal crimes, many of the most viable defenses are no different than if you were facing charges in state court. However, there are certain defenses that only apply to limited circumstances thanks to the language in certain federal statutes or the Constitution itself. These are known as special federal defenses.
These defenses share little in common, but they do not fall within the common categories of federal crimes defenses. While their application may be limited, in some situations they can result in complete immunity from criminal prosecution.
Special federal defenses are complex, and should not be undertaken on your own. To ensure you receive the best defense possible in your case, it is vital that you first consult with an experienced attorney. Attorney Doug Murphy has a track record of success defending the accused in federal court and can assist you with obtaining a favorable outcome in your case.
The term extraterritorial jurisdiction means a government's ability to exercise its legal authority outside of its boundaries. In terms of federal law, this means prosecuting crimes that occur outside of the physical boundaries of the United States. The federal government has the power to prosecute some offenses that occur outside its boundaries, but not others. Cases where the government may not pursue these charges could result in a successful trial defense.
The international law governing the extraterritorial jurisdiction for criminal offenses is complex. In general, there are five factors that combine to determine whether a nation has jurisdiction to enforce its laws outside of its borders. These factors include:
- Where the offense occurred
- The nationality of the alleged offender
- The nationality of the alleged victim
- Whether the national interests are impacted, and
- Whether the custody of the offender gives jurisdiction.
When a defendant charged with a federal offense raises a defense based on extraterritorial jurisdiction, the court must determine if they have jurisdiction to hear the case before it can proceed. To do so, they must make two determinations. First, if the prosecution comports with the five factors of international law discuss above. Second, the courts must determine whether Congress intended for a statute to apply extraterritorially.
In determining congressional intent, the court will first look to see if the statute sets a specific jurisdictional element. If the statute is clear it applies domestically or internationally, this will guide the court. However, many federal statutes are silent on the issue. While there is a presumption that statutes that are silent as to jurisdiction are intended to only apply domestically, the Supreme Court has held that courts may infer from the nature of the offense if it should apply internationally or not. In the end, it is a judgment made by the trial judge.
Commerce Clause Defenses
The Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution describes Congress' enumerated power to regulate commerce between states among other things. However, it leaves intrastate commerce as the domain of the individual states. This means that certain offenses that do not involve interstate commerce should be left to the states to prosecute. If the federal government oversteps its boundaries and prosecutes such an offense, the commerce clause could provide a viable defense.
However, there are important exceptions that allow Congress to regulate conduct that is primarily local. These exceptions include:
- The regulation of interstate commerce channels
- The regulation of instrumentalities of interstate commerce, and
- The regulation of activities that have a substantial impact on interstate commerce.
The courts have generally found that the conduct must be tied in some way to economic activity that uses or impacts interstate commerce. It is not enough for Congress to claim certain conduct impacts interstate commerce, either. For example, the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Violence Against Women Act related to gender-based violence, holding that noneconomic violent crime has no substantial impact on interstate commerce.
In some cases, meeting this burden can be relatively low. For example, a federal firearm offense could survive a Commerce Clause challenge if the prosecution can show the weapon or ammunition was purchased elsewhere and carried over state lines.
Defenses based on derivative citizenship are rare and apply only in cases of federal immigration crimes. The theory behind this defense is simple; before the federal government can obtain a conviction based on alleged illegal immigration, they must first show the defendant is an alien to begin with. An alien is a person that is not a citizen or national of the United States. While it may seem like a formality, proving alienage can be challenging for the government. If they fail to do so beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant is entitled to acquittal.
The challenges surrounding this defense begin with the fact that it is impossible to prove a negative. While the government can easily provide records proving a person is a resident, there are no social security numbers or identification cards for those who are not.
The federal government is not without options, of course. Typically, they will submit an affidavit to the court certifying that immigration records for a specific defendant do not exist. Based on the lack of records, the court can then infer that the person is an alien. There are evidentiary problems with this form of record, however. Given that it is created for the purpose of =criminal prosecution and not in the normal course of business, it is a form of hearsay that cannot qualify as a business record.
Speak to a Dedicated Houston Federal Defense Attorney Right Away
While these defenses may seem obscure, each of them has resulted in an acquittal of federal charges in cases across the country. By working with a dedicated Houston federal defense attorney, you can rest assured that every potential defense is being considered in your case.
If you believe one of the defenses described above could apply in your case, it is vital that you speak with legal counsel immediately. Schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.