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How Federal Criminal Cases Differ from State – Lawyer Answers

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

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 08:46 pm

How Federal Criminal Cases Differ from State

The United States has both federal and state court systems. This dual court structure can sometimes cause confusion regarding how criminal cases are handled, as there are important differences between federal and state criminal law. This article provides an overview of how federal criminal cases differ from those handled in state courts.

Jurisdiction Over Crimes

The first major difference between federal and state criminal law relates to jurisdiction – meaning the authority of a court to hear and decide a case.

State courts have general jurisdiction over most criminal cases, as states have broad authority to regulate behavior and prohibit certain acts as criminal under state law. Things like murder, assault, theft, drunk driving, and drug possession are examples of state crimes, prosecuted in state courts.

Federal courts have limited jurisdiction, mainly over crimes that involve a federal interest, such as crimes committed across state lines, crimes that violate the U.S. Constitution, or crimes that relate to matters of national concern. Examples of federal crimes include tax evasion, mail fraud, bank robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking across state lines.

There can sometimes be overlap where a crime violates both federal and state laws. In those cases, prosecutors have discretion whether to bring charges in federal or state court.

Investigations and Prosecutions

Criminal investigations and prosecutions also differ between the federal and state systems.

For state crimes, investigations are typically conducted by state police or local law enforcement agencies like a county sheriff’s department. Prosecutions of state crimes are handled by local District Attorneys.

Federal crimes are investigated by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, or IRS. Federal crimes are prosecuted by United States Attorneys who work for the U.S. Department of Justice.

So if you are being investigated for or charged with a crime, it matters a great deal whether it is a state or federal case in terms of which police will investigate and which prosecutors will handle the case.

Judges and Courts

There are also important differences in terms of the courts and judges who preside over state versus federal criminal cases.

State criminal cases go through the state court system. At the trial level these are often called Superior Courts or Circuit Courts. Judges are usually elected or appointed by the state Governor. Most states also have an intermediate Court of Appeals. The highest court is usually called the State Supreme Court.

Federal criminal cases begin in U.S. District Courts. District judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. There are 94 federal District Courts grouped into 12 regional Circuits around the country. Above that are the U.S. Courts of Appeals, with a total of 13 circuits. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system.

Federal judges have lifetime appointments, while state judges generally serve fixed terms before facing reelection. The different selection methods can impact the types of judges on each bench.

Court Procedures

There are also procedural differences between state and federal courts when it comes to the rules around things like pretrial discovery, motions, jury selection, appeals, and so on.

Federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which are consistent nationwide. State courts follow their own rules of criminal procedure, which can vary significantly between states.

Defense attorneys who regularly practice in federal court emphasize the importance of being familiar with the Federal Rules and common practices in federal court, which differ a great deal from typical state court procedures.


One of the most notable differences between state and federal criminal cases relates to sentencing, or the punishments imposed if a defendant is convicted.

For federal crimes, federal judges must consider the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines provide recommended sentencing ranges based on the crime committed and the defendant’s criminal history. The guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, but most federal judges adhere closely to the guideline recommendations.

Sentencing for state crimes varies widely between states. Some states utilize sentencing guidelines, but others give judges broad discretion. Mandatory minimum sentences are more common for state drug crimes versus federal drug crimes. Overall, state sentences tend to be lower than federal sentences for comparable crimes.

Incarceration also differs, with state prisoners serving time in state prisons and facilities, while federal inmates are housed in federal prisons operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Conditions and programs can vary greatly between state and federal prisons.

Double Jeopardy Implications

The U.S. Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause prevents a person from being prosecuted twice for the same crime. But due to the dual sovereignty doctrine, double jeopardy protections do not always apply between the federal government and the state governments.

This means that in some cases it is possible for a defendant to face charges in both state and federal court for the same criminal act. For instance, someone acquitted of a state murder charge could still face federal charges for the same killing.

However, dual prosecutions are still relatively rare in practice, and some states have passed laws providing additional double jeopardy protections in state court after a federal prosecution (or vice versa).

Getting an Experienced Attorney

Facing criminal prosecution can be an intimidating and complex process. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney is crucial.

For state charges, local defense lawyers who regularly handle cases in that state’s courts will know all the procedures, judges, prosecutors, and practices best.

Likewise for federal charges, hiring counsel familiar with the federal system, Federal Rules, and typical federal practices is highly recommended. The differences between state and federal court are significant, so lawyers experienced in one system often lack knowledge that attorneys handling cases regularly in the other system will have.

No matter whether you face state or federal criminal charges, consulting an attorney is wise to understand the case, your rights and options, and the best strategies under the applicable laws and procedures. An experienced local criminal defense lawyer is always your best advocate.

Key Differences Summary

  • State courts have general criminal jurisdiction, federal courts have limited jurisdiction mainly over federal crimes
  • State crimes are investigated by state and local police, federal crimes by federal agencies
  • State cases are prosecuted by District Attorneys, federal cases by U.S. Attorneys
  • State judges are elected or appointed by governors; federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate
  • State courts follow state procedural rules which vary, federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure
  • State sentences vary by state and judge discretion; federal judges consult the Federal Sentencing Guidelines
  • Double jeopardy protections can differ between state and federal prosecutions

Having the right criminal defense attorney is crucial, whether you face state or federal charges. Be sure to consult an attorney experienced in the specific court system handling your case. This will give you the best chance of a favorable case outcome.

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