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Personal Jurisdiction

8. What is “Personal Jurisdiction”?

A court must have both subject-matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction in every case. While subject-matter jurisdiction regards the court’s authority to hear a certain type of case, personal jurisdiction regards the authority for a court to exercise jurisdiction over an individual. That is, the court must have the legal authority to adjudicate the matter involving the specific individual. Determining whether a court has personal jurisdiction over an individual is different for criminal and civil cases.

•    Criminal Case – In a criminal case, a court has personal jurisdiction over the defendant if the defendant committed the alleged criminal conduct within the court’s geographic jurisdiction. A federal court will have personal jurisdiction over a defendant committing any criminal activity within the United States. A state court will have personal jurisdiction over a defendant committing any criminal activity within that state’s borders.

•    Civil Case – Establishing personal jurisdiction in civil cases requires that the court serve the defendant with a summons (or otherwise provide sufficient legal notice of the proceeding), also known as “service of process”. A summons, along with the complaint, gives a defendant legal notice of the allegations against her and directs her to appear before the court on a given date. The legal requirements for serving a summons on someone differ between state and federal courts and are discussed below.

In a criminal case, personal jurisdiction is generally not an issue. An individual would assert a defense to the alleged crime rather than assert a lack of personal jurisdiction. In a civil case, however, personal jurisdiction is a hotly debated topic. This is particularly true for businesses that place products into the market for sale. There is a great deal of uncertainty as to what amount of sales activity in a state will subject the business to personal jurisdiction in that state’s courts.

•    Discussion: Why are the requirements for personal jurisdiction different for criminal cases versus civil cases? Is there an argument for extending a state’s personal jurisdiction over alleged criminal activity carried on outside of the state’s jurisdiction? Would it be fair to subject

•    Practice Question: Clarence lives in California. While he was visiting South Carolina, he was driving while intoxicated and crashed his vehicle. The wreck injured a bystander, Devon. Clarence, afraid that he would be arrested, quickly fled the scene of the accident. The next day he returned to California. What are the personal jurisdiction issues if the prosecutor’s office in South Carolina seeks to bring criminal charges against Clarence for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident? What are the personal jurisdiction issues if Devon wishes to sue Clarence?

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