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What are Federal Crimes? An Overview of Federal vs State Jurisdiction

By Spodek Law Group | October 18, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 19, 2023)

Last Updated on: 19th October 2023, 02:01 pm

What are Federal Crimes? An Overview of Federal vs State Jurisdiction

In the United States, criminal law is enforced at both the federal and state level. Federal crimes are prosecuted in federal courts, while state crimes are prosecuted in state courts. Understanding the difference between federal and state jurisdiction is important for anyone facing criminal charges.

Key Differences Between Federal and State Courts

There are some key differences between federal and state courts:

  • Federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, while state judges may be elected or appointed, depending on the state.
  • Federal prosecutors work for the U.S. Department of Justice, while state prosecutors work for state or county District Attorney’s offices.
  • The rules of procedure and evidence can differ between federal and state courts.
  • Federal courts handle a smaller volume of cases than state courts. In 2019, over 300,000 cases were filed in federal district courts, compared to over 18 million in state trial courts.[1]
  • Federal courts have their own law enforcement agencies, like the FBI and DEA, while state courts rely on state and local police.
  • Federal prisons and state prisons are separate systems.

So in summary, federal courts have federally appointed judges and prosecutors, follow federal procedural rules, handle fewer cases, and have their own law enforcement agencies separate from the state systems.

Basis for Federal Jurisdiction

For a criminal case to be heard in federal court, there must be a basis for federal jurisdiction. There are several main ways that federal courts get jurisdiction over criminal cases:

Federal Statutes

If a federal statute directly prohibits certain conduct, then violations can be prosecuted in federal court. For example, federal laws prohibit mail fraud, wire fraud, identity theft, and other offenses specifically defined in the federal criminal code.

Interstate Commerce

Under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has power to regulate interstate commerce. Many federal criminal laws rely on this as a basis for jurisdiction, even if the conduct is purely intrastate. For example, the federal law prohibiting possession of a firearm by a convicted felon requires that the gun must have travelled in interstate commerce at some point, which is usually easy to prove.

Federal Lands and Facilities

Federal courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed on federal lands, like national parks, federal buildings, and military bases. So assaulting a park ranger or bringing drugs onto a military base can be prosecuted federally.

Federal Funds

When federal funds are involved, like Medicare fraud or misuse of federal disaster relief funds, federal courts may have jurisdiction.

Civil Rights Violations

Depriving someone of their civil rights under color of law, like excessive force by a police officer, can be a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. Section 242.

Examples of Federal Crimes

Some of the most common federal offenses prosecuted in U.S. District Courts include:[2]

  • Drug crimes – trafficking, distribution, and importation offenses
  • Firearms offenses – possession by prohibited persons, transport across state lines
  • Immigration violations – illegal reentry, alien smuggling
  • White collar crime – mail/wire fraud, identity theft, embezzlement
  • Child pornography and exploitation
  • Civil rights violations

Federal courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over certain crimes like counterfeiting currency, treason, and piracy.

Examples of State Crimes

Most violent crimes like murder, assault, rape, robbery, and arson are prosecuted at the state level. State courts also handle the vast majority of drug possession and DUI/DWI cases. Other common state law offenses include:

  • Theft/larceny
  • Burglary
  • Vandalism
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Traffic offenses

Many states have also enacted their own computer hacking, identity theft, and wiretapping laws which mirror federal statutes.

Concurrent Jurisdiction

In some cases, one criminal act violates both federal and state laws. For example, robbing a post office violates both federal law (because it’s federal property) and state robbery laws. Or, selling illegal drugs violates both federal drug statutes (because of interstate commerce) and state drug laws.

In these situations, both federal and state prosecutors may bring charges. The defendant can be tried and convicted in both systems for the same conduct without violating double jeopardy protections. However, federal and state prosecutors often coordinate to avoid duplicative prosecutions. Oftentimes the case will be handled in federal court if the federal interest is greater, or in state court if the state interest is greater.

Pros and Cons of Federal vs. State Prosecution

There are some key differences in how federal vs. state criminal cases proceed:

Federal Court Advantages

  • More resources/investigative tools for law enforcement
  • Harsher sentencing options like death penalty, life without parole
  • No parole available to reduce prison time
  • Defendants may be held without bail pending trial

State Court Advantages

  • Lighter sentencing ranges in many states
  • Possibility of parole or early release from prison
  • Defendants often released pretrial without having to post bail
  • In some states, more privacy protections for defendants

Other Considerations

  • Federal judges are appointed, state judges may be elected
  • Federal prosecutors generally have more experience than state prosecutors
  • Federal trials may require more travel if courthouse is far away

So in summary, federal court can be seen as a more “no nonsense” approach with harsher penalties, while state court may provide more opportunities for rehabilitation and early release. Much depends on the specific charges and the state laws.

When Federal Prosecution is Preferred

Even when an offense violates both federal and state law, federal charges are more likely in certain situations:

  • Crimes crossing multiple states or international borders
  • Large-scale drug trafficking operations
  • Public corruption cases involving state officials
  • Civil rights cases with uncooperative local authorities
  • Complex fraud schemes involving multiple jurisdictions
  • Defendants with prior state convictions who remain threats
  • High-profile cases generating national media coverage

The federal government tends to have more resources to investigate and prosecute large, complex criminal enterprises like organized crime rings or widespread conspiracies. So the feds are more likely to step in when state and local governments lack the resources or expertise.

Defense Strategies in Federal vs. State Court

Those facing federal criminal charges will want to hire an attorney experienced in the federal system. The complex federal sentencing guidelines, rules of criminal procedure, and evidentiary standards are very different from most state courts. An attorney familiar with the federal district handling the case will know the prosecutors, judges, and policies to craft the best defense strategy.

In state court cases, local knowledge of judges, prosecutors and typical case resolutions is key. State courts handle large dockets and move quickly, so an attorney familiar with the players and processes can work to get the best deal or prepare the strongest trial defense.

No matter whether a criminal case is in federal or state jurisdiction, mounting an aggressive defense with experienced counsel is critical. The consequences of a conviction can be life-changing. Federal and state criminal charges should always be taken seriously.


[1] Court Statistics Project DataViewer [2] United States Sentencing Commission

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