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The Spodek Law Group understands how delicate high-profile cases can be, and has a strong track record of getting positive outcomes. Our lawyers service a clientele that is nationwide. With offices in both LA and NYC, and cases all across the country - Spodek Law Group is a top tier law firm.

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Federal vs State Crimes: Key Differences in Prosecution and Sentencing

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:29 am

Federal vs State Crimes: Key Differences in Prosecution and Sentencing

The American legal system is divided into federal and state jurisdictions, with each level of government able to pass criminal laws and prosecute individuals. While most crimes are prosecuted at the state level, some are prosecuted federally if they involve issues of national importance. There are key differences between federal and state crimes in how they are prosecuted and the typical sentences imposed.

Examples of Federal vs State Crimes

The majority of crimes prosecuted in the United States are state crimes like assault, theft, drunk driving, and murder. These are prosecuted in state courts based on violations of state criminal statutes[1].

In comparison, federal crimes make up a smaller portion of total prosecutions and involve issues of national significance like[2]:

  • Interstate trafficking of drugs, weapons, or people
  • Crimes committed across state lines or on federal land
  • Crimes against the federal government itself
  • Computer crimes, financial crimes, and corruption

Some examples of federal crimes include[3]:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Kidnapping
  • Bank robbery
  • Counterfeiting
  • Tax evasion
  • Mail and wire fraud
  • Child pornography
  • Bribery of public officials

Some crimes can be charged federally or at the state level depending on the circumstances. For example, an assault in a local bar would typically be a state crime, but assaulting a federal employee on federal property could trigger federal charges.

How Federal vs State Crimes Are Prosecuted

Federal and state crimes are prosecuted in entirely separate court systems, from investigation through trial and sentencing[4].


  • State crimes are investigated by local police or state law enforcement.
  • Federal crimes are investigated by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, or Homeland Security.


  • State crimes are prosecuted by local District Attorneys in state courts.
  • Federal crimes are prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys in federal courts.


  • State court judges are elected or appointed by governors.
  • Federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

This means federal judges generally have life tenure, while state judges serve terms of a defined number of years.

Sentencing Differences

One major difference between federal and state crimes is the typical length of sentences imposed[5]:

  • Federal sentences tend to be longer – The federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums impose harsher sentences for many federal crimes compared to similar state crimes.
  • Federal drug crime sentences are especially severe – Even minor federal drug charges can result in years or decades in prison under federal mandatory minimums.
  • Federal judges have less discretion – Federal judges are bound by the sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums, which restrict their ability to impose lesser sentences based on case specifics.
  • No parole in federal system – There is no parole available in the federal system outside of very rare circumstances, so federal inmates serve nearly their entire sentence. State systems often allow parole.

In addition to longer prison terms, federal crimes can also trigger huge financial penalties. Federal white-collar prosecutions often involve forfeitures and fines in the millions of dollars.

Implications of a Federal Conviction

Beyond harsher sentences, a federal conviction can have other far-reaching consequences[6]:

  • Results in a federal criminal record accessible across the country
  • Triggers immigration consequences like deportation for non-citizens
  • Leads to loss of federal benefits like student loans and public housing
  • Bars possession of firearms nationwide
  • Requires registration for certain classes of federal sex offenses
  • May limit future employment opportunities due to background checks

Double Jeopardy Implications

The Double Jeopardy clause prevents being prosecuted twice for the same criminal offense. However, under the dual sovereignty doctrine, federal and state governments are considered separate sovereigns.

This means federal prosecution can proceed even if the person was already prosecuted for the same crime at the state level. The reverse is also true – a state can prosecute even after a federal conviction.

While legally allowed, dual prosecutions are rare in practice because they consume substantial prosecutorial resources. But it remains a possibility in serious cases.

If you are facing potential federal charges, it is essential to retain legal counsel experienced in the federal system. The harsh sentencing guidelines and complex procedures make federal prosecutions extremely high stakes. An experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can fully advise you of the options in your particular case.

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