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Understanding Conflict of Criminal Laws


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Conflict of criminal laws come about when one jurisdiction says is a certain criminal act, another jurisdiction says otherwise, or not exactly so. Take Nick Diaz who is a licensed marijuana user in California. In California and in at least thirteen other states, he can freely smoke his weed without worrying about drug charges. But bring him and his medicinal pot in some Southeast Asian or Middle Eastern country and chances are he would land in jail, or worse. Different countries have different sets of criminal laws. And even within one country, different levels of government, as well as different political units within the same level, would each have its own unique set of criminal laws. It is always important to contact a skilled criminal defense lawyer Las Vegas who knows the ins and outs of the criminal system.

In the United States, the most common cases of conflicts of criminal laws involve issues pertaining to the jurisdictional boundaries between the federal government and the state government. In general, when there is conflict, the federal law would prevail against any state laws. The Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) of the United States Constitution declares that federal laws are the “supreme Law of the Land.” Hence, state laws are inferior so long as the federal law is valid or constitutional. The Constitution recognizes though that it is not always feasible nor desirable to make a federal law in certain areas – that is, there are areas of law that are reserved solely for the states to regulate, and any federal law which encroaches on that area is unconstitutional. In any case, the Constitution itself retains supremacy, so even if federal law is forbidden in certain areas, the Constitution itself is always supreme over any state law.

Some areas of criminal law are entirely subjugated under federal law, such as copyright infringement, so there would be no conflict with any state laws. Others on the other hand have overlapping consequences, such as theft from a mailbox — it is a federal crime (tampering with the US mail) and also a state crime (theft). An individual who steals from someone else’s mailbox could therefore be charged and convicted of the same crime in either or both state and federal courts. It is in cases like this that conflict in criminal laws between levels of government become particularly contentious.

To illustrate, let’s take another look at Nick Diaz and his medicinal pot. Under the federal government’s Controlled Substances Act (CSA) (21 U.S.C. § 811), marijuana is treated like every other controlled substance, such as cocaine and heroin, and mere possession is illegal. Federal law enforcement officials may prosecute medical marijuana patients, even if they reside in a state where medical marijuana use is protected under state law. Under California’s medical marijuana laws however, patients and caregivers are exempt from prosecution by the State of California, notwithstanding contrary federal law. In the state of California, Nick Diaz cannot be prosecuted by state law enforcement authorities. However, if apprehended by say, a DEA agent, he can be prosecuted in Las Vegas federal court. Getting help from a criminal defense lawyer who has vast experienced with Federal Law is necessary.

The conflict of criminal laws between permissive state statutes and harsh federal legislation applies not only to medicinal marijuana but also across a wide range of issues, including certain abortion procedures, possession of various types of firearms, and many other activities which fall within the grey zone of society’s norms. As a general rule, where state and federal laws seem to regulate the same thing, the stricter rules would apply. For instance, they can legalize various drugs in California, but their possession or sale could still violate federal laws. If something is legal in a state and illegal federally, then state police cannot arrest on it, but federal police can. Usually though, the feds don’t have enough resources nor agents actively enforcing such violations of the law and local law enforcement generally just stick to their state laws.

There may also be conflict of criminal laws between states, as when a crime takes place in only one state district, but it affects interests protected by a federal criminal law in another state district. For example, a defendant is released on bond pending appeal in one district, and fails to abide by a court order to report to federal prison in a different district. Or, the defendant commits criminal acts in more than one district as in a criminal conspiracy where a criminal agreement is made in one place, but the action carrying it out happens in another.

Basically, conflict of criminal laws can take place between states’ laws, between laws of a state and a foreign country, between state and federal law, and between federal law and a foreign country’s law. A conflict of laws between states or countries is generally resolved in favor of the laws of the place which has the closest or most direct link to the crime. A conflict of laws between levels of government, as earlier mentioned, is generally resolved in favor of the higher level of government.

If you are from Las Vegas and charged with a crime in another state, contact criminal defense attorney for a legal counsel.

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