26 Nov 23

What is the difference between state and federal crimes?

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Last Updated on: 5th December 2023, 02:11 pm


What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes?

A lot of people get confused about the difference between state and federal crimes. It’s pretty complicated, with a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo, but let me try to break it down real simple-like.

The first thing to get straight is that most crimes – we’re talking like robbery, murder, rape, arson, all that bad stuff – are violations of state law. Each state has its own criminal code that lays out what’s illegal. Like if you rob a bank in Texas, you broke Texas law. If you rob a bank in California, you broke California law. Make sense?

Now the federal government has its own set of laws too. These apply to the whole country, not just one state. But the feds can’t make laws about just anything they want. Federal criminal law has to involve some kind of national interest, like crimes that happen across state borders or crimes that threaten the federal government itself.

Let’s take bank robbery for example. Robbing a bank is illegal under state law everywhere. But if you rob a national bank like Bank of America or Wells Fargo, that can also be a federal crime cuz those banks are insured by the FDIC, a federal agency. So you’d be violating both state and federal law.

Here’s some other examples of common federal crimes:

  • Trafficking drugs or weapons across state lines
  • Tax fraud and other white collar crimes
  • Cybercrimes like hacking into government computers
  • Counterfeiting money
  • Civil rights violations
  • Kidnapping involving transporting the victim across state lines

Basically anything that affects the national interest, not just one state’s interest. Make sense?

Now sometimes federal and state laws conflict with each other. Like let’s say a state makes something legal that federal law says is illegal. Who wins? The feds do. It’s called the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution. If federal and state law clash, federal law trumps.

This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, it usually means the feds think a state law violates the Constitution. For example, before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, some states had banned it. But federal courts kept striking down those state bans because they violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. Federal law won out.

So in summary:

  • Most criminal laws are state laws created by each state’s legislature. Robbery, rape, murder, theft – all that bad stuff is usually prosecuted under state law.
  • Federal criminal laws apply nationwide and involve issues of national interest. Things like trafficking, tax fraud, civil rights violations, etc.
  • If state and federal law conflict, federal law wins out.
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Seem simple enough? I know, I know, it’s kind of confusing trying to keep the state laws and federal laws straight. Even many lawyers don’t totally understand the complexities. But hopefully this article cleared it up a bit in plain English!

Let’s get into some more specifics now. Say you get arrested for something. How do you know if it’s a state or federal charge?

Well first off, you’ll be taken either to a local county jail or a federal detention center. If you’re booked into a county jail, it’s almost definitely a state charge. If you end up in a federal detention center, obviously it’s federal.

You can also tell by who arrests you. If local cops or state troopers arrest you, it’s state. If the FBI, ATF, DEA, or other federal agents arrest you, it’s federal. Basically local and state police enforce state laws while federal agencies like the FBI enforce federal laws.

The prosecutor will also make it clear whether you’re being charged under state or federal law. State cases are handled by county or district attorneys. Federal cases are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Your defense lawyer will know right away too. Public defenders handle state cases while federal public defenders handle federal cases. Private defense attorneys like myself handle both but will tell you straight up if it’s a state or federal charge.

Let’s discuss the implications of getting charged with a state vs a federal crime. There’s some big differences:

  • Federal crimes almost always carry harsher punishments – longer prison sentences, bigger fines, etc.
  • Federal court rules are much stricter. Their conviction rate is higher than state courts.
  • Most states have parole options but there’s no parole in the federal system. You serve at least 85% of your sentence.
  • Illegal evidence can sometimes be excluded in state court but federal courts have narrower rules on suppression of evidence.
  • Juries tend to be more skeptical of federal prosecutors but federal prosecutors also have more resources at their disposal.

So in summary, the federal system is much tougher on defendants compared to state courts. The feds have more power and resources. The rules make it harder for defendants to get charges dismissed or win at trial. And federal prison sentences tend to be longer with fewer opportunities for early release.

Yikes! So how do you avoid getting charged with a federal crime instead of a state crime?

Well remember, federal law enforcement looks for issues of national significance. So your small-time state drug offense probably won’t catch the feds’ attention unless it crosses state lines.

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The key is keeping your criminal activity totally within one state and not committing crimes that threaten federal interests. Don’t sell drugs or weapons across state lines. Don’t hack into government computers. Don’t mess with the IRS. You get the idea.

Also, if at all possible, avoid committing crimes on federal property like military bases, national parks, federal courthouses, etc. Some things that are state crimes elsewhere become federal crimes if done on federal land.

And don’t attack or threaten federal agents like FBI or DEA – that’s a quick way to get the feds on your case!

Bottom line – keep it small-time crook stuff within state borders and you reduce the odds of federal charges. But once the feds have you in their sights, look out! Their resources and power make beating a federal case awfully tough. As always, my legal advice is to avoid committing any crimes in the first place! Stay smart and stay safe out there folks.

So there you have it – a plain English guide to the difference between state crimes and federal crimes. I know it’s a complex topic, so holler if you have any other questions! I’m always happy to explain this stuff in simple terms without any big lawyerly words. The law affects real people, and you deserve to understand how it works. Hopefully this article shed some light on the state vs federal crime issue. Now go out there and keep on the right side of the law, ya hear?