Criminal Law - Federal

How Are Federal Criminal Charges Different From State Charges?

Some crimes fall under state law, and others are violations of federal law. Criminal cases are different when handled by state courts versus federal courts. If you are facing state or federal criminal charges, it is important to understand the differences.

Talk to a federal criminal defense attorney if you’ve been charged in federal court so you can understand your legal options.

Federal and State Criminal Investigations

In federal criminal cases, there are numerous federal government agencies that investigate potential crimes, including:

  • FBI
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • IRS
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

These federal agencies refer the results of their investigation to federal prosecutors, also known as U.S. attorneys. Prosecutors will then present the case to a grand jury to determine if a person should be charged with a federal crime.

In state courts, most criminal cases are initially investigated by local police in the county or municipality where the offense occurred. The case is then referred to the local county district attorney. Some counties contract with city attorneys to prosecute low-level charges like misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

Criminal Procedure in Federal and State Courts

In the federal court system, the initial hearings for outlining the charges and setting bail are heard by magistrate judges. In state court, district court judges can hear a case from the initial hearing until trial or sentencing.

In federal court, a grand jury is a requirement, unless a defendant waives this right. A grand jury consists of a group of 16-23 individuals from the community who hear evidence in secret. Evidence can include witness testimony, documents, or expert scientific reports on subjects related to the type of crime. At least 12 jurors have to agree that there is enough evidence to support probable cause for the federal crime. A quorum, or a minimum of 16 jurors, must be present to hear the initial evidence.

What Are Differences in Federal and State Prisons?

Federal prisons are operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). State prisons are run by state governments. State prisons generally house more inmates than federal prisons. Federal prisons tend to have higher levels of security and more resources. In addition to the more serious crimes, federal prisons also house people convicted of white-collar crimes, like health care fraud, mortgage fraud, and tax evasion.

According to the Department of Justice, in 2019, there were 1,677 adult correctional facilities in the United States.

  • 111 were federal prisons
  • 1,155 were operated by state correctional agencies
  • 411 state prisons were privately operated

How Does Sentencing Work in Federal and State Court?

In federal court, judges have to follow the length of sentence outlined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) outlines national standards for sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences that federal judges must follow.

In state court, sentencing minimum and maximum terms can vary depending on state law. For example, first-degree murder in Texas carries a maximum death sentence. However, Minnesota doesn’t authorize the death penalty.

Criminal procedure and criminal laws can vary from state to state. In federal courts, there is a uniform set of procedures that outline the federal criminal laws from arrest to sentencing, called the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

Which Crimes Are State or Federal Offenses?

Federal crimes are generally offenses that involve a federal interest. Crimes that have federal jurisdiction can involve:

  • Crimes that cross state lines
  • Crimes involving interstate commerce
  • Crimes that violate federal law or the U.S. Constitution
  • Crimes that occur on federal property
  • Crimes against a federal employee or institution

Examples of federal crimes include tax fraud, child pornography, mail fraud, or counterfeiting. Types of cases that usually don’t involve federal prosecution include domestic violence, theft, DUIs, or burglary.

Whether you are charged in federal or state court, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help guide you through the process. Your attorney can help negotiate a plea agreement to avoid the harshest penalties. If you want to fight the charges, your lawyer can defend you in court.

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