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What are the differences between federal and state crimes?

On Behalf of | Feb 6, 2024 | Criminal Law

Criminal charges are not all the same. Obviously, there are many different offenses that lead to different types of charges and different penalties. The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors can be very important, as felonies often lead to longer prison sentences and other, more serious penalties.

However, before even discussing the severity of the charges, establishing who intends to prosecute someone is also important. Specifically, defendants face very different consequences when prosecuted at the state level as opposed to the federal level.

What are the main differences between state and federal charges?

Who arrests or investigates

Often, the deciding factor that determines a case should be a federal one is what agency investigated the incidents or what professionals arrested someone. Arrest by local police departments or a state Sheriff would likely lead to State charges in many cases. However, someone arrested in investigated by a federal agency, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could very well end up facing federal prosecution.

The scope of the offense

Often, the reason that federal agencies get involved in an investigation is because of how significant the offense is. Sometimes, criminal activity may cross state lines. Drug trafficking schemes and money laundering efforts are among the offenses that may take place in multiple different states and could therefore become federal crimes. Similarly, offenses that make use of federal infrastructure, including the Postal Service, the Federal Reserve or telecommunications networks, could lead to allegations of committing a federal offense instead of a state crime.

The penalties imposed

The federal government is somewhat notorious for instituting very harsh mandatory minimum sentences even for minor drug offenses. Those accused of federal crimes often face very significant penalties because the law imposes a minimum sentence that judges must hand down. How someone serves their sentence can be very different at the federal level as well. Despite what people might anticipate, they could end up serving their sentence hundreds of miles away from home, possibly across state lines, after a conviction for a federal infraction.

The criminal process is also different in federal cases when compared with state cases. Not all defense lawyers have the necessary experience to help people properly respond to federal charges. Knowing what separates state offenses from federal ones may benefit those preparing to take a criminal case to trial.