Written by attorney Ray Edward Richards II

Difference between charged with a State and a Federal crime

The differences between federal and state crimes can be complicated.

Many different laws overlap in the criminal arena, and doubts and questions are created as to what criminal court should prosecute the crime. If the crime happens in one state, it is typically a state crime, unless it is an expressly named federal crime. But if a crime occurs throughout many states, or crosses state lines, or occurs on or to federal property it often becomes a federal crime. State crimes are typically all conduct that violates state laws, such as murder, traffic violations, and other areas where conduct is completely encompassed in the state. Federal crimes are specifically enumerated federal offenses, such as IRS violations, allegations of drug trafficking and possession, mail fraud, kidnapping, counterfeiting, damaging or destroying mailboxes, and immigration offenses.

When a crime committed seems that it could be charged as a state crime or a federal crime, the US Constitution’s “Supremacy Clause" states that federal law will trump state law, and the federal authorities will take the case over. This happens more often than not especially if the suspect(s) are of great interest and focus to federal law enforcement.

The differences in legal jurisdictions and court case process are not entirely different. The main difference with legal jurisdictions is that jurisdiction in a federal court is typically held by the federal district near where the crime was committed. The exception would be if the crime was committed in multiple jurisdictions. One example is the Black Mafia Family (BMF) Federal Prosecutions where majority of the prosecutions were conducted inDetroit,Atlanta andLos Angeles. In state court, jurisdiction is held by the city and or county where the crime occurred.

In handling the case, federal courts follow the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, regardless of location. A federal criminal case/indictment in Anchorage, Alaskawould be governed by the same law, criminal procedure, trial procedure, evidentiary rules and sentencing guideline as in Miami, FL.Statecourt cases will follow the procedures outlined by state law of that state and that state only. Typically, the main differences in these procedures are the use and non-use of grand juries, filing and disclosure of discovery of evidence is conducted, and how the trial proceeds. These differences do not make radical changes in how a case is handled, but rather how a case proceeds through the initial arraignment to the final sentencing phase.

One of the more shocking differences in State and Federal prosecutions is the evidence and the disclosure of the same. In a nutshell is can be summarized as such, in a criminal case in state court there may be a folder or two of discovery which can be a couple hundred pages at best. In federal criminal cases you are looking at on average one or two bankers boxes of documents, compact disks with additional federal law enforcement agent reports, transcripts, audio and or video and any and all wiretap calls.

Reason for the difference? Usually the extent, scope and focus of the investigation and who is conducting the same makes the difference. In state court most prosecutions are swift and succinct. The Feds look to a more comprehensive all encompassing “round up" of defendants to target and indict. In state court you are usually looking at the investigation of the city police, sheriffs department and or state trooper investigators. In Federal Court you may have the latter law enforcement agencies involved and the FBI ,DEA, ATF, IRS, ICE if it is a joint federal task force case. If that is the case (and even if it is just a strict federal law enforcement investigation) you will have numerous police investigators working on a case therefore a substantial amount of evidence or discovery.

Penalties and sentencing do differ in federal and state courts. In the federal courts, Federal judges use a manual known as “The Federal Sentencing Guidelines" to advise them in calculating penalties for serious offenses in sentencing. Although the sentencing guidelines cannot be applied mandatorily, they are still used in making penalty considerations.

In the state courts, penalties and sentencing is often guided by state legislation, some states have sentencing guidelines and some states the judge has the discretion of a minimum and maximum range with no guideline factors. When passing state penal codes, the legislature will place minimum and maximum sentencing penalties, such as a state robbery charge carrying a sentencing scheme of 3-5-7 years. In that scheme, a judge will use the factors to determine whether the crime deserved a low, mid, or maximum sentence.

Also the enhancement systems/options are different in state and federal criminal cases. These differences are most important especially as in federal criminal court you when have a point system that determines the guideline range of your sentence. That point system is based on factors such as your background, criminal history and facts/allegations that were established in your case. The development and adoption of those facts by a sentencing Judge could have a magnanimous impact on your sentence.

If you are charged with a federal crime, it would be in your immediate best interest to hire a criminal lawyer experienced in the federal criminal courts to best help your case. Although many criminal lawyers started their careers defending state cases and have become experts in the same because of their success and experience, to defend federal cases that same experience and exposure is strongly suggested. Be sure the lawyer you are looking to hire has a track record handling federal criminal cases and actually trying federal criminal cases to a jury. In federal court it’s a different ball game from the initial arraignment to the receiving and conducting of discovery, motion practice to trying a case before a federal jury!

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