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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Congress Digs for Murky Federalization Line

WASHINGTON (CN) - Warning Congress about the dangers of over-federalization Thursday, a Maryland prosecutor said he has had to threaten federal agents with arrest to stop them from "stomping" on his crime scene.

The testimony came during a hearing by the U.S. Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations on over-federalization.

Maryland State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly told members of Congress that a publicity-hungry federal prosecutor tied up his prosecution of a man guilty of slashing an 8-year-old girl's throat before hiding her body in the woods.

The prosecutor, Cassilly said, used federal extortion charges to attach his name to high-profile murder case.

Decreasing overlap between federal criminal statutes and state laws fostered bipartisan support in the subcommittee, but the parties clashed on mandatory-minimum sentences and where to draw the line between federal and state prosecution.

"I think if we try to cut back on federal crimes, bureaucrats will start screaming loudly," Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said. "But we don't need to send the FBI out for investigations that can be better handled by local police and prosecutors."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., echoed Sensenbrenner's sentiment.

"There are over four and half thousand federal criminal statutes that overlap state laws, and we're responsible for establishing about 50 new federal crimes a year," Conyers said. "We're in a tough situation."

James Strazzella, a law professor at Temple University, reminded the committee of the U.S. Supreme Court's position that there is no double-jeopardy protection for suspects facing federal and state charges for the same crime.

Using bank robbery as an example, Strazzella said that an institution's federal insurance gives U.S. prosecutors the chance to put away bank robbers obviously guilty of violating state laws as well.

"In reviewing existing or future federal legislation the issue of who has the resources to investigate and prosecute a crime should be considered and whether utilization of those resources will result in neglecting other areas which should have a higher federal priority," Cassilly testified.

Federalism, the pillar of the 10th Amendment, became even murkier last year when Colorado and Washington passed laws legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, directly conflicting with federal statute. The Obama administration handed down guidelines for federal prosecutors but essentially gave its blessing for the states' laws.

Cassilly noted that he had sent then-Attorney General John Ashcroft a letter over U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio's pursuit of federal extortion charges against Jamal Abeokuto in 2003.

The Maryland prosecutors accused DiBiagio of damaging relations between federal and state law enforcement.

DiBiagio lost his job during the administration of President George W. Bush for performance-related issues.

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