When I was growing up, people my parents’ age used to say “Don’t make a federal case out of it” as a way of saying “Don’t make this into a big deal when it isn’t.” As in, “Dad, Joey is using my football!” “Don’t make a federal case out of it, son.”
I don’t know if anyone is still using that expression in that way. If not, maybe it’s because these days federal cases are made out of many things that aren’t especially big deals. Possessing less than an ounce of Marijuana, for instance, is not exactly the crime of the century. In some of our more progressive states, it isn’t even a crime. But if a federal agent (National Park Ranger, Forest Service Law Enforcement, etc.) catches you with any amount of marijuana on federal land, it does indeed become “a federal case.” You are charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office under federal law (see 21 U.S.C. § 844), and the case goes to the nearest federal court.
This has some unfortunate consequences. For one, many states offer some form of expungement. That is, a way to clean your criminal record after a case is dismissed or a certain amount of time passes after a conviction. But there is no expungement process under federal law. If you are convicted in federal court, that conviction will be there forever, unless you receive a presidential pardon (good luck with that). The typical fine for possession is also much higher, and the conditions of probation can be more onerous.
One of the things that makes Utah so awesome is our beautiful federal land: big National Forests like the Wasatch, and the Uintas, the La-Sals and the Cache; lots of amazing National Parks like Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, and Zion; and big swaths of BLM land and National Monuments like Cedar Breaks and Glen Canyon/Lake Powell. But that means there’s lots of opportunity to pick up a federal charge for that joint in your ash-tray. If that’s happened to you, get in touch with me to talk about your options. Even if you live out of state, I might be able to help you resolve your case without coming back to Utah.