What is the difference between federal versus state criminal cases?
The state court and federal court are two entirely different systems — with different courthouses and judges. Federal judges, appointed by the President and then ratified by Congress, preside over federal criminal cases. State court judges, who are elected in local elections, preside over state criminal cases. Assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecute federal cases, while state district attorneys and city attorneys cover state crimes.
Federal criminal court proceedings operate under different guidelines, procedures, and laws than state proceedings. They will often involve testimony and the presentation of evidence from one of the federal law enforcement agencies. Thus, it is essential for defendants to be represented by an experienced federal crime attorney who is familiar with dealing with these agencies and how to best attack the evidence that is typically presented in these cases.
Federal v. state prosecutions
Federal crimes typically involve federal government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Secret Service, or even possibly the Postal Service. Federal crimes can include:
- Drug trafficking
- Crimes related to immigration
- Crimes that include weapons/firearms
- Hobbs Act robbery
- Organized crime
- White-collar crime
- Computer-related fraud and crime
The majority of crimes are categorized by state law as criminal acts. Therefore, they are considered as state crimes. They are investigated by local police officers, state agents, or county sheriffs. State crimes include things such as:
- Drug dealing
- Sexual crimes including molestation and rape
The state court and federal court are two entirely different systems — with different courthouses and judges. Federal judges will preside over federal criminal cases, while elected state court judges preside over state criminal cases. Assistant U.S. Attorneys prosecute federal cases, while state district attorneys and city attorneys cover state crimes.
Types of sentences in federal versus state crimes
Another major difference between federal crimes versus state crimes is the required sentence, or mandatory minimums. Federal judges are steered by federal sentencing guidelines when handing down a sentence. The Federal Sentencing Table is established by the United States Sentencing Commission. With certain mandatory minimum sentencing usually means that federal sentences tend to be much lengthier than state sentences. Even if their crimes are similar, someone being sentenced for a federal crime will typically face a much harsher penalty than someone who has been convicted of a similar state crime.
The facilities where sentences are carried out also differ. People sentenced to do time for a federal crime will be sent to a federal prison, while those who serve time for a state crime will be sent to state prison. Federal prisons tend to house more non-violent offenders (such as people convicted of white-collar crimes), while state prisons house large populations of people convicted of violent crimes.
Court Structure Federal versus State
|The Federal Court System
|The State Court System
|Article III of the Constitution invests the judicial power of the United States in the federal court system. Article III, Section 1 specifically creates the U.S. Supreme Court and gives Congress the authority to create the lower federal courts.
|The Constitution and laws of each state establish the state courts. A court of last resort, often known as a Supreme Court, is usually the highest court. Some states also have an intermediate Court of Appeals. Below these appeals courts are the state trial courts. Some are referred to as Circuit or District Courts.
|Congress has used this power to establish the 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, the 94 U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Court of Claims, and the U.S. Court of International Trade. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts handle bankruptcy cases. Magistrate Judges handle some District Court matters.
|States also usually have courts that handle specific legal matters, e.g., probate court (wills and estates); juvenile court; family court; etc.
|Parties dissatisfied with a decision of a U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Claims, and/or the U.S. Court of International Trade may appeal to a U.S. Court of Appeals.
|Parties dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court may take their case to the intermediate Court of Appeals.
|A party may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court usually is under no obligation to do so. The U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of federal constitutional questions.
|Parties have the option to ask the highest state court to hear the case.
|Only certain cases are eligible for review by the U.S. Supreme Court.