Lack of jurisdiction
In the context of criminal law, jurisdiction is the authority of a sovereign governing body to legislatively define criminal activity and to prosecute individuals who violate those criminal laws within the sovereign's geographic bounds. Generally speaking, a sovereign nation may only prescribe rules that apply within its geographic boundaries or to its citizens at large, meaning a sovereign cannot create crimes in a foreign jurisdiction.
For a criminal case, proper jurisdiction is defined by the location of criminal activity and the subject matter of the criminal activity that occurred. In order for a court to be able to prosecute an individual for any charged crime, the prosecuting court must have proper personal and subject matter jurisdiction over the individual. Should either of these elements be lacking, the accused may be able to argue that the court has no power to proceed with the prosecution and that the proceedings be abandoned. Jurisdictional rules and the procedure for arguing a lack of jurisdiction over the accused are specific to each court and the procedure for ending prosecution on a lack of criminal jurisdiction argument will vary by court and sovereign.
For a further discussion on the theory of jurisdiction in a broader context, please see Jurisdiction.
In the U.S. criminal justice system, there is a multi-layered system of authority within the federal structure that divides personal jurisdiction amongst the Federal government and the States. Additionally, subject matter jurisdiction is apportioned amongst a variety of courts both at the Federal and State level.
Personal Jurisdiction in the Criminal Justice Context
Proper personal jurisdiction in a criminal case is established by the location of where a crime is committed. Personal jurisdiction is established over an accused by issuance of a subpoena, indictment or information from a court sitting within the proper geographic location. If a court fails to properly establish jurisdiction over an individual, or if the crime took place outside the court's geographical reach, then the accused can make a motion to dismiss the proceeding based on a lack of personal jurisdiction. In federal courts, the motion alleging a defect in jurisdiction is codified in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Section 12(b)(3). State courts will have individualized rules for making motions to dismiss based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction in the Criminal Justice Context
Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to hear a case involving a specific subject or type of criminal proceeding. In federal criminal cases (offenses against the laws of the United States), the federal district courts of the United States have subject matter jurisdiction granted under 18 U.S.C. Section 3231. For state criminal cases, most state courts are courts of general jurisdiction, which includes the authority to prosecute violations of the criminal laws of that state. In the U.S., the majority of criminal cases are state crimes and federal jurisdiction will only come into play if a federal law is broken.
Some courts however have specialized jurisdiction as defined by statute. For instance, federal bankruptcy cases, including criminal offenses arising from bankruptcy issues, have proper subject matter jurisdiction only in federal bankruptcy courts per 28 U.S.C. Section 1334.
Because of the federal system in the U.S., courts may have concurrent personal jurisdiction over a defendant. In such situations, either court has the legal authority to hear the case. For instance, a person accused of a drug related offense might face state drug charges as well as federal drug trafficking charges for the same course of conduct. Normally in such circumstances, the relevant law enforcement agencies will come to an agreement about which agency takes primary jurisdiction. It is possible, however, that the defendant could face prosecution in both Federal and State court.
If a prosecution is begun in a court of improper subject matter jurisdiction, the accused can make a motion to dismiss the proceeding based on a lack of jurisdiction. In federal courts, the motion alleging a defect in jurisdiction is codified in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure Section 12(b)(3). State courts will have individualized rules for making motions to dismiss based on a lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Other Forms of Jurisdiction in the Criminal Justice Context
Law enforcement agencies have territorial boundaries within which they are able to exercise authority, a geographical area known commonly as their jurisdiction.