The Differences Between State and Federal Crimes

Below is a guest post from Brett A. Podolsky, a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas. He is Criminal Legal Specialist certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and the former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the State of Texas:

If you or someone you care about is facing state or federal prosecution, you know the experience is frightening. This is a legal emergency: you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend your rights now.

Each state has the right to enforce its laws and state constitution. However, federal and state laws intersect and often overlap. For instance, it’s illegal under state and federal laws to manufacture controlled substances or drugs.

Federal prosecutors may proceed at a slower pace than state prosecutors. Many defendants benefit from having their case moved to from the federal system to the state courts.

State vs. Federal Laws

More crimes are tried at the state level and the federal government typically defers to the state in some matters.

In some areas, the federal government exercises the right to prosecute — even when the state has firm jurisdiction over the defendant. Most people are surprised to learn that individuals may be prosecuted for a single offense by the federal and state governments (even by two different states). Fortunately, you can’t be tried for the same offense twice. You may recall learning about double jeopardy in school.

While you won’t be tried twice for a single crime by a single sovereign, you can face prosecution for the crime by different governmental entities. In other words, you can face state vs. charges or charges from two different state governments. This legal concept is dual sovereignty.

An example of this concept was the prosecution of a well-known NFL player convicted or operating an illegal canine fighting operation. Michael Vick was initially prosecuted by the federal government. He was convicted and given a 23-month sentence. Later, Vick was prosecuted again for these offenses at the state level in Virginia. The state court convicted him for a second time.

His criminal defense team argued the Virginia indictment but, because he admitted guilt in federal court, Virginia prosecutors submitted that double jeopardy didn’t apply. That said, he wasn’t tried twice in the same jurisdiction.

Key Differences of Federal and State Courts

State and local municipal courts are created by the state. Within the state, there are city, county, and other municipal governments and their courts. In comparison, the U.S. Constitution establishes federal courts in order to determine disputes that involve the laws passed by the U.S. Congress and the Constitution.

State and Federal Courts’ Jurisdiction

Federal and state court differences are distinguished primarily by jurisdiction, or the types of cases the court may hear:

  • State courts are provided with broad jurisdiction. Cases involving individual citizens of the state, e.g. family disputes, robberies, contract disputes, or traffic violations, are typically tried in the state court system.
  • A state court isn’t allowed to try lawsuits against the federal government (or those pertaining to certain federal laws, e.g. criminal, copyright, anti-trust, bankruptcy and specific maritime cases).

In comparison, federal court jurisdiction is limited to those cases cited in the U.S. Constitution. Federal courts typically hear 1) cases in which the federal government of the U.S. is a party, 2) cases that involve U.S. Constitution violations and/or federal laws (to be determined under “federal-question jurisdiction”), 3) cases that involve different states’ citizens (when the amount in question is greater than $75,000, under “diversity jurisdiction”), and 4) bankruptcy, patent, copyright, and some maritime law matters.

Importantly, state and federal courts sometimes have dual jurisdiction. In this eventuality, the parties may elect to go to federal or state court.

When it’s a choice, most defendants choose their state court system.

Criminal Cases in Federal and State Court

Most cases involving criminal violations of state law are tried in the court system of the state. Criminal cases that involve federal laws must be tried in the federal system.

Let’s consider an example:

Most citizens of the United States know that robbery is a criminal offense. What law is used to show that robbery is a crime?

For the most part, the state laws – not those of the federal government – say that robbery is a crime. It’s a federal offense to rob the FDIC-insured deposits of a local bank, but it’s not a federal offense to rob a neighbor’s property.

Other federal crime examples include 1) transporting illegal controlled substances in the United States or across state lines, or 2) the use the United States postal service to bilk consumers. A crime that occurs on federal land, e.g. a military post or a national park, is prosecuted at the federal level.

The Federal Constitution and State Laws

The federal court system may also try cases involving state laws when the issue concerns whether the law(s) of the state violate the U.S. Constitution.

Let’s imagine that a state’s law bans the slaughter of animals other than within a limited area. Local association plaintiffs bring a lawsuit against an area defendant known to sacrifice lambs in his yard.

The state court issues an injunction to forbid the defendant from making new sacrifices. He then challenges the state’s law in the federal system as an “unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom.”

In comparison, certain conduct is illegal under state and federal laws. For instance, the laws of the federal government prohibit discrimination by an employer. An employee with grievances against his or her employer may take the case to state or federal court. It may be tried under federal laws or in both the state and federal courts.

Court Caseloads

State courts manage more cases than the federal court system. The state court is likely to have more public contact than the federal system.

While the federal court hears fewer cases than the states’, those cases heard are usually of national concern or importance.

Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are exceptionally important because they extend to all citizens of the United States.

In comparison, if a state case is followed by the national news, it’s because of celebrity appeal (e.g. O. J. Simpson’s case) or because the case is particularly macabre (e.g. Jody Arias’s case). Millions of Americans watched these trials, but the case outcomes didn’t directly impact the viewers.

According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), about one million cases are filed in federal court vs. 30 million cases filed in state courts each year. About 1,700 judgeships serve the federal court system vs. 30,000 judgeships serving the states.

Differences between Federal and State Crimes

As you can see, the differences between federal and state crimes are often complex. Laws may overlap between the federal and state court systems. Attorneys often argue vigorously about where a crime will be prosecuted.

When a crime happens in a state, it is usually viewed as a crime of that state. If a crime occurs in two states, or alleged activities cross state lines or the crime occurs on federal property, the courts may consider this a federal crime.

Summing up:

  • State crimes involve conduct violating a local city, county, town, or state’s laws, e.g. traffic violations, murder, sexual assault, or another conduct that’s defined by these laws.
  • Federal crimes involve conduct violating specific federal statutes, e.g. counterfeiting, mail fraud, damage/destruction of postal boxes, immigration, drug trafficking/possession, or violent crime allegations.

Constitutional Supremacy Clause

When a specific crime may be viewed as either a state or federal offense, the courts refer to the U.S. Constitution Supremacy Clause.

This means federal law trumps state law. Federal authorities decide the case course—especially if alleged offenders are of some interest to federal authorities.

In other words, federal laws supersede those of the state.

Federal Investigation and Prosecution

Federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Secret Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), etc., usually investigate possible federal criminal offenses.

State or local law enforcement agencies often work with these federal government agencies to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office (for the specific state or area in which the crime occurred) is usually called upon to prosecute federal crimes. In some instances, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the U.S. Department of Justice investigators participate in the prosecution.

If you or someone you care about has been charged with a federal offense or is under investigation for an alleged offense, it is crucial to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer to defend your rights. Not all criminal defense attorneys are licensed to practice in the federal courts.

The differences between the federal criminal justice system and the states’ criminal justice systems are vast. For that reason, it is imperative to engage a criminal defense lawyer with deep federal court experience. He will defend your legal rights and may dramatically affect the outcome of your case.

Sentencing and Punishment in State vs. Federal Courts

The state court typically uses guidelines to sentence and punish offenders. Some states, such as Texas, allow the jury to set punishment in felony cases. In some cases, this may benefit the offender.

When a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty in a federal court, the judge uses Federal Sentencing Guidelines to calculate the penalties in the sentencing phase. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2005 that the mandatory nature of these guidelines was unconstitutional.

This means, although sentencing guidelines aren’t mandatorily applied, they must be used when considering the sentence and/or punishments.

The federal judge determines the offender’s punishment range within these sentencing guidelines. Factors such as the offender’s criminal record, the dollar amount involved (financial crimes), or the offender’s role in a criminal scheme are considered.

Criminal Defense and Criminal Sentencing

Experienced criminal defense lawyers provide a wide range of services to clients:

  • He answers the client’s most compelling questions, e.g. sentencing if he or she is found guilty.
  • He provides information about the lowest/highest available sentence in federal or state court.
  • When the jurisdiction must rely on the sentencing guidelines, a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney summarizes the secondary issues that might apply to the guidelines.

If a defendant’s case proceedings through his or her state’s criminal justice system, the federal government system, or both court systems, he or she needs to know the bottom line:

  • A sentence imposed by a federal judge is often longer than one authorized by a state court.
  • For that reason, the case outcome frequently depends on the defendant’s criminal defense attorney to successfully argue that the case should be tried in the state courts.

Brett A. Podolsky is a Criminal Legal Specialist certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is the former Assistant Criminal District Attorney for the State of Texas. As a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas, Mr. Podolsky dedicates his entire practice to litigation. He accepts a wide variety of cases, including drug charges, federal crimes, white-collar crimes, and sex crimes.