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Erie and Federal Criminal Courts

Posted by on Thursday, October 28, 2010 in Articles, Volume 63, Number 5, Volumes.

Today, low-level state and local criminal provisions figure critically in federal prosecutions, serving as the initial bases for police seizures that yield evidence leading to more serious federal charges (usually involving drugs or firearms). While police resort to such laws as pretexts to seize individuals has been the subject of extensive commentary, this Article provides the first discussion of how federal courts actually interpret and apply the laws. In doing so, it reveals a surprising reality, long dismissed as a doctrinal impossibility: federal judicial use of the analytic framework of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins in criminal cases.

As this Article explains, as Erie has migrated so too have its analytic difficulties, complicated by a variety of issues unique to criminal prosecutions. Federal outcomes result not in civil liability but rather deprivations of physical liberty and have significant implications for federalism and separation of powers, affecting the historic police power authority of state and local governments. The Article, in short, examines the impact of the “Erie megadoctrine” in federal criminal courts, which given the increasing cooperative efforts of state and federal law enforcement promises to have ever- greater significance in the years to come.