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What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Criminal Cases?

Posted by Ann Fitz | Apr 12, 2023

If you have been charged with a crime, it is important to understand the difference between state and federal criminal cases. Depending on the type of crime you are accused of, you may be subject to different laws, regulations, and court proceedings. Understanding how both systems work can help ensure your rights are protected throughout the legal process.

Federal Criminal Cases

A federal criminal case is any case brought by the US government against an individual or organization that violates a law passed by Congress. These types of cases typically involve larger crimes such as fraud, drug trafficking and terrorism. They are handled in federal courts with special federal judges appointed pursuant to Article III of the US Constitution and confirmed by the US Senate. In these cases, defendants are generally tried according to federal statutes rather than state laws. The Department of Justice prosecutes defendants in these cases and they must abide by all rules established by Congress for each particular crime.

State Criminal Cases

State criminal cases involve crimes committed within a state boundary that violate a state's laws or codes. These types of cases are prosecuted at the local level in local state courts and may involve misdemeanors or felonies such as burglary, assault or drug possession. Defendants in these types of cases will be tried according to state statutes rather than federal laws and the punishment for state crimes is usually less severe than for federal crimes. Prosecutors handling these types of cases are usually from the state attorneys' offices who oversee all felony charges within their county boundaries.

Overlapping Jurisdiction

It may be possible for to be charged with both a federal crime and a state crime for the same offense depending on the circumstances.  For example, robbery of a gas station involving the use of a weapon could violate both state law and federal law.  Prosecution for both federal and state charges does not violate double jeopardy because the state and federal crimes fall under separate jurisdictions.  Sometimes it is possible for an experienced attorney to argue for the state and federal sentences to run concurrently so that the defendant only has to serve one prison sentence for the crime, but the default under the law is for state and federal sentences to run consecutively.

If you have been accused of a crime, understanding how both federal and state criminal systems work can help ensure your rights are protected throughout the legal process. Although both systems handle criminal offenses differently, each offers its own unique set of protections under the law for defendants accused of breaking criminal laws or codes within their jurisdiction's boundaries. It is important to understand which system applies to your case so that you can make informed decisions about how to best protect yourself during this difficult time.

About the Author

Ann Fitz

Attorney Ann Fitz Attorney Ann Fitz has 20 years of experience as a federal criminal attorney and appellate practice attorney.  She began her career as a prosecutor in 2003 and started her own federal criminal defense practice in 2007.  She is devoted to protecting the rights of the accused in f...

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