What Are the Differences Between Federal and State Criminal Charges?
The differences between federal and state criminal charges may be slight, or they may make a significant difference in your case. The distinctions will depend on the individual circumstances surrounding your case and the specific charge.
It is, therefore, important to have assistance from a criminal defense lawyer experienced with both types of systems. Some of the key differences between federal and state criminal charges include:
Jurisdiction of the Courts
The first key difference is what is called “jurisdiction.” State and federal courts have different jurisdiction, or the right to hear the case. Federal courts have jurisdiction over constitutional matters and federal laws that Congress passed. State courts have jurisdiction over state and local laws.
Most crimes are tried in state courts.
State crimes include murder, rape, theft, burglary, arson, and drug crimes.
Federal crimes are identified in the federal criminal code. They include crimes that occur on federal property or involve national or federal interest, such as counterfeiting or robbing a bank. They also include offenses that occur across state lines. Other federal crimes include:
- Drug trafficking
- Identity theft
- Drug crimes
- Mail fraud
- Wire fraud
- Weapons crimes
In some cases, the same criminal activity can result in state and federal charges. This is not considered unconstitutional double jeopardy since state and federal charges are defined differently.
Additionally, conduct may be considered legal under state law while illegal under federal law, such as possession of marijuana.
Federal vs. State Enforcement
Another important difference in state and criminal charges is the law enforcement entity that is responsible for investigating the offense.
State offenses are usually investigated by city police departments, county sheriff’s offices, and state authorities. Federal offenses are investigated by agencies such as:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Drug Enforcement Administration
- Internal Revenue Service
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms
Federal agencies often have greater resources that are expended on cases considered important by the federal agency. Before you are charged with a federal crime, a major investigation may have been completed.
The process to charge and prosecute an individual is also different, depending on whether he or she is facing federal or state charges.
A federal indictment is usually brought by a grand jury. An indictment requires a majority of 12 to 23 jurors who determine whether charges are warranted. U.S. Attorneys or Assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecute federal crimes.
State charges may advance from a preliminary hearing in which the local prosecuting attorney files documentation on the criminal charges. The judge decides whether there is probable cause for the charges lodged against the defendant.
State, district, or city attorneys prosecute state crimes.
Federal vs. State Sentencing
One of the major differences in state and criminal charges is the potential sentence that you can receive. The potential sentence for a state crime is determined by the applicable state statute that is being charged.
Most federal judges follow sentencing guidelines when sentencing a defendant. These guidelines classify crimes differently. Cooperating with authorities and prior criminal history are factors that can increase or decrease the sentence. However, federal sentencing guidelines are often much harsher than comparable state crime sentences.
Federal sentencing guidelines often involve mandatory minimum sentences, which is the minimum amount of time that a judge must give a defendant for a crime. Some of these sentences are very lengthy, such as drug crimes. Defendants serve time in local jails or state prisons while criminal defendants serve their sentences in federal prisons.
Contact an Experienced Lawyer
Whether you are facing state or federal charges, it is important that you talk to a qualified attorney who can explain the nature of the charges you are facing.