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Federal vs. state crimes: What’s the difference?

In the moments following an arrest, you face uncertainty as to what will happen next. Going through booking and spending any amount of time in jail before you are released on bond are unsettling experiences, particularly if you face federal charges.

How is that different from facing state charges? And can police charge you with both federal and state crimes for the same offense?

Facing state or federal charges

Whether you face state or federal charges is a question of who is prosecuting the case—if you are being prosecuted for violating state laws, you will be in front of a state judge in County or District Court within that state, prosecuted by the office of the elected prosecutor for that district. If you are accused of violating federal law, you will be prosecuted in a federal court by a federal prosecutor in front of a federally appointed judge.

Just because federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA or ATF are involved in an investigation does not mean a case will be charged in federal court. Often these agencies will assist local law enforcement without federal prosecution. At the same time, it is also possible that a federal prosecution will result from an investigation that primarily involves local law enforcement.

You can face state and federal charges for the same offense. Examples include drug trafficking charges, fraud charges, bank robbery charges, child pornography charges, or weapons charges.

The vast majority of criminal prosecutions occur in state courts. Local and state police investigate and charge people with state crimes. However, you will face federal charges if you committed a crime that reaches across state lines, violates a specific federal law, or that occurred on federal property or on a Native American reservation.

If you are charged within federal court, you should expect to spend significantly more time incarcerated before being able to bond out, and there is a much greater possibility of bond being denied entirely, requiring that you remain in custody while the case is pending. In state court, almost all charges are eligible for a bond, and there is a presumption that you will be released on bond while the case is pending.

Examples of federal charges

Some more examples of when you might face federal charges include the following:

  • Federal agencies accuse you of interstate narcotic distribution
  • Federal agencies accuse you of possessing or distributing child pornography or other illegal online activities
  • Federal agencies accuse you of wire fraud, embezzlement, or money laundering
  • Federal agencies accuse you of cybercrimes or identity theft
  • Federal agencies accuse you of a hate crime and violating someone’s civil rights
  • Federal agencies accuse you of committing a crime at an airport or on an airplane

Federal offenses often come with more strict penalties than their state court counterparts, and because of the strict sentencing guidelines that are used in federal court, the vast majority of federal cases end with a  plea bargain rather than trial.

When facing state or federal charges

If you are facing state or federal charges, you need to consult an experienced criminal law attorney. You want to work with a lawyer who understands state or federal law well enough to create a strong defense against the charges you face. You also want an attorney who can work to get your charges reduced or minimize any penalties you may face.

You need to protect your rights and freedoms when facing state or federal charges. That’s why the first step is seeking legal representation. You don’t want to make the mistake of thinking you can overcome complex criminal matters on your own.

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