What Is the Difference between a State Criminal Charge and a Federal Criminal Charge?


The majority of crimes involve the state. However, just as state legislators can make their own laws to prohibit criminal behavior, Congress penalizes and defines acts that constitute crimes at the federal level. Federal criminal laws need to be tied to some national or federal issue, such as mail fraud, federal tax fraud, interstate trafficking, or crimes that are committed on federal property. Some criminal acts will only be crimes under federal law. However, many criminal acts, such as kidnapping and bank robbery, are both crimes under state and federal law and can be prosecuted in either state or federal court.

Federal Crimes

Most crimes that come to your mind at first, such as rape, theft, arson, burglary, robbery, and murder, violate state law. State legislators use general power to regulate conduct and with these crimes the state has jurisdiction. This means there are fewer cases of federal crimes. State lawmakers can pass just about any law, as long as it’s constitutional, but federal lawmakers are only able to pass laws where there is some national or federal interest at stake. For example, counterfeiting money is considered a federal crime since it’s the duty of the federal government to print money.

There is a broad definition of federal interest. The federal government has jurisdiction over these types of crimes:

  • Crimes involving federal officers or taking place on federal land. These crimes can include murder on an Indian reservation or national forest, assault on a DEA agent, or theft on a military base.
  • Crimes involving misrepresentation, deception, or fraud on the federal government or one of its agencies, such as Medicaid fraud or federal tax fraud.
  • Crimes where the defendant crosses state lines. This can include a kidnapping where the victim was taken from Nevada to Oregon.
  • Crimes where the criminal act crosses the state lines. An example is a fraud scheme where there are perpetrators and victims in multiple states.
  • Customs and immigrations violations. Examples include international human trafficking or importing child pornography.

The most common federal crimes involve white collar crimes, firearms charges, fraud, and drug charges.

Punishment for Federal Crimes

The punishment for federal crimes can vary, just like it can for state crimes. There are guidelines for federal sentencing and the majority of federal judges do follow the guidelines when sentencing defendants. Typically, federal penalties are going to be longer than state crimes, even if the crime is similar. Federal drug crimes usually carry harsher mandatory minimum sentences. People that are convicted of federal crimes and serve time in prison will go to a federal prison instead of a state prison.

Federal charges are usually harsher than state charges. The reason is because the indictments often involve more severe consequences if there are national or federal interests at stake. The penalties that you face will depend on your exact offense and federal doesn’t automatically mean harsher. The majority of federal convictions do result in bigger fines, longer prison terms, and other statutory penalties, however. Since the federal government has more resources and staff to commit to a case, federal prosecutions can be hard to defend against. State prosecutors can sometimes overlook some evidence that a federal prosecutor wouldn’t normally overlook.

Differences in Federal and State Procedure

The federal and state prosecutions are very different. The President appoints federal judges for life, but state court judges need to sit for re-election, even if they are appointed by the governor. State crimes are investigated by county sheriffs, local police officers, or state agents and are prosecuted by city attorneys or state district attorneys. Federal crimes are instead investigated with federal officers, such as ICE agents, DEA, or FBI, and are prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Since there are a lot fewer federal prosecutions, cases in the federal court system will take longer to resolve.

Prosecutions in Both Federal and State Court

It is rare, but someone could be prosecuted in both federal and state court for the same act if it violates both federal and state law. Even though there is a double jeopardy clause that prohibits someone from being tried twice for the same crime, there is a separate sovereign exception. Since the federal and state governments are separate, this double jeopardy clause doesn’t apply. For example, a state court in California acquitted four LAPD offers of beating Rodney King in 1992 but later federal prosecutors charged the officers with violating his constitutional rights and two of the officers were convicted in federal court. Even though the constitution allows for both federal and state courts to prosecute for the same crime, states are able to prohibit this from happening with their own state laws. In New York, the law prohibits state prosecutions when the same crime has been prosecuted in federal court. This is because both federal and state laws are designed to prevent the same types of crime from happening. It’s not practical to prosecute at both the state and federal level since resources are limited.

Hiring a Lawyer

Whether you are being prosecuted for a state or federal crime, you need a seasoned criminal defense lawyer on your side. If you look at the pedigree of judges and prosecution found within the federal court system, it’s necessary for any accused individual to have an aggressive defense, especially if you want to avoid the stricter penalties of federal crimes.


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