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Federal vs State Crimes. Differences, similarities, and everything in-between

July 15, 2006

Knowledge is everything especially when it involves matters as serious as criminal charges.

Understanding the differences between a federal crime and state crime is necessary because each of these charges is handled differently. Intrigued? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Exactly are State Crimes? 

A state crime is a violation of the laws of a state, local town or municipal government. They are handled by the state government and involves relevant state agencies. State crimes cover the majority of everyday crimes and misdemeanors you can think of. They are handled by state judges, local persecutors, and police departments. Prosecutions are carried out in state courts and punishments are dictated by the state’s statute. Systems of law vary per state and as such, punishment measures may differ.

Common examples of state crimes include:

  • Murder
  • Armed Robbery
  • Driving under the influence
  • Sexual Assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Assault and battery
  • Kidnapping
  • Drug possession (small amounts)

What are Federal Crimes?

A crime is considered federal if it’s against the federal government’s interest, or cuts across multiple states. For example, a robbery in the state of Virginia may be charged as a federal crime if it’s connected to an organized crime network in Maryland or New York. These crimes are often more sophisticated and are prosecuted under federal statute. Federal cases are handled by federal agencies such as the secret service, DEA, FBI, ATF, and IRS.
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Federal criminals are tried by federal prosecutors in federal courts.

Common examples of federal crimes include:

  • Illegal immigration or unlawful residence
  • Terrorism
  • Electoral fraud
  • Weapons trafficking
  • Child sex trafficking
  • RICO
  • Computer fraud or hacking
  • Counterfeiting currency
  • Bank robbery in which the money is FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) insured

Differences between federal crimes and state crimes


Federal courts’ jurisdictions cover acts of terrorism, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) cases, patent crimes, and charges against the federal government. Federal cases are heard in federal courts with at least one courthouse in each district.
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A federal court hears only 1 in 30 criminal cases.

State courts have much wider jurisdictions. Ranging from ordinary misdemeanors to aggravated assaults, robberies, and murders in each state. The majority of public crimes are state crimes and are tried in state courts.


Federal prosecutors are called Assistant U.S Attorneys. Thorough investigations are carried out by federal officers such as the FBI or DEA. State crimes are handled by state prosecutors with the help of local and state police.


The punishments dished out for federal and state crimes differ. Federal judges often follow federal sentencing guidelines when convicting a defendant. In general, federal penalties are longer and more severe than state penalties even when the crimes are comparable.

Federal criminals serve their time in federal prisons while state criminals are sentenced to local or state prisons.

Severity of Prosecution

Since the majority of crimes are state crimes, a state’s investigatory resources may be limited. So, a state prosecutor may find it difficult to file an air-tight case.
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In this case, experienced criminal lawyers may easily use loop-holes to their client’s advantage. Contrastingly, federal prosecutors don’t handle lots of cases. So, before they file a charge, they are most likely to have all the evidence and resources necessary for indictment and conviction.

So, if you’re facing a federal criminal charge, you may need to spew out a huge sum in legal fees. And, this explains why criminal defense is quite a lucrative business all over the world. For example, top-rated criminal attorneys in Sydney and Los Angeles can take home over $200,000 a year.


Judges in the federal court system are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate. State judges are appointed by the Governor and are subject to an election. Federal judges can only be removed by the U.S Senate.

When Federal Charges Transcend State Charges

There are situations where an individual is expected to face federal charges irrespective of the location of the crime. The most common situations are when:

  • The crime involves movement and/or commerce across state lines (e.g. interactions between North Carolina and South Carolina.
  • Crime occurs on federal properties. These properties could include national parks, federal courthouses, and reservations.
  • The crime involves federal government agencies or is being investigated by one. Such as the FBI and the DEA.
  • The crime involves individuals from different states.

What if a Crime Violates both State and Federal Laws?

Occasionally, state and federal laws may overlap, causing both courts to have jurisdiction over some cases. Although, a person can’t be tried under the same jurisdiction for the same criminal offense. This clause is called the ‘double jeopardy‘.

If you have been indicted with a federal charge or are being investigated by a federal agency, it is imperative to seek expert guidance. According to statistics, more than 80% of people prosecuted in a federal court are convicted of those crimes. Therefore, the advice of a competent defense attorney who has vast experience and understands the federal court system comprehensively should be sought.

A lot of criminal defense attorneys are quite familiar with handling state charges, but not all are knowledgeable in taking on federal cases. So, do well to ask the right questions when hiring a defense lawyer.

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