Difference Between State and Federal Charges

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When it comes to understanding the criminal justice system, it’s fair to say that many different laws can overlap, leading to questions and doubts about which criminal court should be permitted to prosecute any particular crime. If the crime in question happens within one state, it is usually referred to as a state crime unless the nature of the occurrence expressly names it a federal offense. However, if a crime occurs within many states, or across state lines, or it happens to or on federal property it can become a federal crime.

Generally, state crimes refer to all of those things that violate the laws held by the state in question, such as traffic violation, and various other areas where conduct can be encompassed in the state. Federal crimes are generally enumerated federal offenses, such as allegations of drug possession and trafficking, IRS violations, kidnapping, fraud, counterfeiting, and immigration offenses.

When a crime takes place that has the potential to be charged as either a federal or state crime, the Supremacy clause held by the US Constitution suggests that federal law should generally trump state law, and thus the federal authorities will be permitted to take over the case. This can happen more often than you might expect – particularly if the suspects are of great interest to federal law.

What Is Federal Jurisdiction?

Interestingly, most of the crimes that might come to mind when you think about the potential of federal law, or crimes that are actually violations of state law, such as robbery, murder, burglary, theft, arson, and rape. In these cases, state legislators, including those in Massachusetts, use their power to regulate such conduct, and the state has the power to determine the outcome of the case.

There are generally fewer examples of federal crime available to mention, because while state lawmakers have the potential to pass just about any law, so long as it is constitutional, federal lawmakers can only pass laws when there is a national or federal interest at stake. For instance, counterfeiting can be seen as a federal offense because it is the duty of the federal government to print and regulate money. The federal government is given jurisdiction over the following crimes:

  • A crime wherein the defendant can be proven to cross state lines, for instance, someone who takes a victim of kidnapping from one state to another.
  • A crime which takes place on federal land, or involves federal officers in some way, such as a murder in a national forest, or a theft on a military base.
  • A crime wherein the criminal conduct, rather than the defendant crosses the state lines, such as a crime of internet fraud which leads to victims in multiple states.
  • Violations of customs and immigration, such as international human trafficking.

The Differences in Federal and State Procedures

There are a number of differences in federal and state criminal prosecutions, and federal judges are generally appointed for life by the president. This is different to state court judges, who even when appointed by the governor must sit for reelection. However, in Massachusetts, state court judgesare appointed for life by the governor. Federal crimes are also prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorneys and investigated by officers at a federal level, such as DEA or FBI agents. On the other hand, state crimes are investigated by state agents, county sheriffs and local police officers, and can be prosecuted by city or district attorneys. As a general rule, because there are fewer federal prosecutions, cases in federal court may take longer to resolve.

In terms of court case processes, the difference between both federal and state procedures are not that different. The main change with legal jurisdiction is that the jurisdiction in federal court is often held by the federal district which is closest to the crime which was committed. The exception to this rule takes place when the crime was committed in multiple jurisdictions.

Understanding Prosecutions in Federal and State Courts

Understanding prosecutions in both state courts and federal courts can be somewhat complicated because there are circumstances wherein prosecutions might take place in both areas. Though this process may not happen on a regular basis, there are no legal bars in place that prevent prosecution in both a federal court and a state court if the criminal act violates both state and federal laws. In other words, a person could receive a double dose of penalties.

In regards to the double jeopardy clause, while the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy generally bars a person from being tried twice for the same crime, there is an exception called separate sovereign which might take place. Since the federal and state governments are separate, the clause for double jeopardy doesn’t apply.

It’s worth noting that in both state and federal crimes, the penalties and punishments that are issued by the court for a range of different crimes can vary widely. However, as a general rule, federal penalties are typically longer than the state penalties that might be given for very similar crimes. Another difference worth noting is the fact that a person convicted of a federal crime will go to federal prison, whereas a person convicted of a state crime will go to state prison.

What’s more, the options for enhancement of penalties are different in federal and state criminal cases. In the federal courts, criminals are charged using a point system that is based on a variety of factors including criminal history, background, allegations and facts, and other matters that are established in any given case.

Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

About Geoffrey Nathan, Esq.

Geoffrey G Nathan is a top federal crimes lawyer and Chief Editor of FederalCharges.com. He is a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since 1988, admitted to practice in both Federal and State courts. His cases have been featured in The New York Times, Boston Herald, Wall Street Journal, Foxnews and CourtTV. Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers Number #552110. If you have questions about your federal case he can help, call today at 877.472.5775.