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Key Differences Between Philadelphia State and Federal Criminal Cases

Key Differences Between Philadelphia State and Federal Criminal Cases

There are some big differences between being charged with a crime by the state of Pennsylvania versus the federal government, especially if you’re facing charges in Philadelphia. It can get confusing trying to understand how the two systems work and how your case might play out differently depending on whether it’s in state or federal court. This article will break down the key differences and what they mean for someone facing criminal charges in Philly.


The first major difference is jurisdiction – what types of crimes each system has the authority to prosecute. The state courts in Pennsylvania have jurisdiction over crimes that violate state laws, like assault, robbery, drunk driving, drug possession, etc. Federal courts have jurisdiction over crimes that violate federal laws, like tax evasion, mail fraud, civil rights violations, and any crime that crosses state borders or involves interstate commerce.

Some crimes can be charged at both the state and federal level, but the feds typically only take cases if the crime is highly complex or involves significant public safety issues. For example, a bank robbery in Philly could potentially be charged by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The feds are more likely to take the case if the robbery involved multiple states or terrorist threats.


Another major difference is sentencing, or the amount of punishment you could be facing if convicted. Pennsylvania has sentencing guidelines that recommend standard sentence ranges based on the crime and the defendant’s prior record. Judges have some discretion but are limited by the guidelines. Federal judges have much more flexibility and can impose any sentence up to the statutory maximum.

Maximum sentences are also often higher in federal cases. For example, felony drug trafficking carries a maximum sentence of 10 years under Pennsylvania law but can be up to life in prison under federal law. Federal sentencing also includes “mandatory minimum” sentences that require judges to impose often harsh minimum prison terms for certain crimes. These mandatory minimums apply regardless of the specific facts of the case and eliminate most judicial discretion.

The bottom line – potential penalties are usually more severe in federal court compared to state court in Philadelphia for comparable crimes.

Pretrial Detention

Whether or not you will be released on bail while your case is pending also differs significantly between the state and federal systems. Under Pennsylvania law, cash bail is only supposed to be imposed if no other conditions can reasonably assure public safety and return to court. As a result, most defendants in Philadelphia state court cases are released pretrial under supervision.

Christine Twomey
Christine Twomey
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Brendan huisman
Brendan huisman
Alex Zhik contacted me almost immediately when I reached out to Spodek for a consultation and was able to effectively communicate the path forward/consequences of my legal issue. I immediately agreed to hire Alex for his services and did not regret my choice. He was able to cover my case in court (with 1 day notice) and not only was he able to push my case down, he carefully negotiated a dismissal of the charge altogether. I highly recommend Spodek, and more specifically, Alex Zhik for all of your legal issues. Thanks guys!
Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
Thanks again Spodek law firm, particularly Esq Claire Banks who stood right there with us up to the finish line. Attached photos taken right outside of the court building and the smile on our faces represented victory, a breath of fresh air and satisfaction. We are very happy that this is over and we can move on with our lives. Thanks Spodek law 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼🙌🏼❤️
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Keisha Parris
Believe every single review here about Alex Z!! From our initial consultation, it was evident that Alex possessed a profound understanding of criminal law and a fierce dedication to his clients rights. Throughout the entirety of my case, Alex exhibited unparalleled professionalism and unwavering commitment. What sets Alex apart is not only his legal expertise but also his genuine compassion for his clients. He took the time to thoroughly explain my case, alleviating any concerns I had along the way. His exact words were “I’m not worried about it”. His unwavering support and guidance were invaluable throughout the entire process. I am immensely grateful for Alex's exceptional legal representation and wholeheartedly recommend his services to anyone in need of a skilled criminal defense attorney. Alex Z is not just a lawyer; he is a beacon of hope for those navigating the complexities of the legal system. If you find yourself in need of a dedicated and competent legal advocate, look no further than Alex Z.
Taïko Beauty
Taïko Beauty
I don’t know where to start, I can write a novel about this firm, but one thing I will say is that having my best interest was their main priority since the beginning of my case which was back in Winter 2019. Miss Claire Banks, one of the best Attorneys in the firm represented me very well and was very professional, respectful, and truthful. Not once did she leave me in the dark, in fact she presented all options and routes that could possibly be considered for my case and she reinsured me that no matter what I decided to do, her and the team will have my back and that’s exactly what happened. Not only will I be liberated from this case, also, I will enjoy my freedom and continue to be a mother to my first born son and will have no restrictions with accomplishing my goals in life. Now that’s what I call victory!! I thank the Lord, My mother, Claire, and the Spodek team for standing by me and fighting with me. Words can’t describe how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with this team. I’m very satisfied, very pleased with their performance, their hard work, and their diligence. Thank you team!
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Anthony Williams
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Loveth Okpedo
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Bee L
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divesh patel
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In contrast, federal law presumes detention for serious crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offenses, and crimes of violence. The prosecution typically argues the defendant is a “danger to the community” or flight risk. Unless defense counsel can convince the judge otherwise, expect to sit in federal detention through your case. Bail is rarely granted in federal cases in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, even with supervision conditions.

Sitting in pretrial detention makes it much harder to assist your attorney in building a defense. This is a major disadvantage in federal court that does not exist for most facing state charges in Philadelphia.


Discovery refers to the evidence that gets turned over from the prosecution to the defense before trial. This includes police reports, witness statements, forensic test results, surveillance footage – anything relevant to the criminal charges. Pennsylvania has broad discovery rules designed to promote transparency. Prosecutors must disclose almost all evidence gathered in the investigation, subject to some exceptions like witness safety concerns.

Federal discovery is much more limited. Prosecutors only have to turn over evidence they plan to rely on at trial. Your defense attorney has to file motions and litigate to get additional information. The lack of open discovery makes it harder to evaluate the strength of the government’s case early on. It’s an uneven playing field that benefits the prosecution.

Plea Bargaining

Over 90% of criminal cases end in plea bargains, where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for an agreed upon sentence or dropped charges. Plea negotiations are less structured in Philadelphia state court. The defense attorney works directly with the assigned prosecutor, who has authority to make offers. Deals can be worked out based on case specifics.

In federal court, plea offers are centrally approved by upper management in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Individual prosecutors have much less flexibility to negotiate. Plea deals are standardized based on the charges and the defendant’s background. Bargaining happens on the margins but major concessions are rare once charges are filed. Federal pleas thus tend to be “take it or leave it” offers with less room for creative negotiations benefiting the accused.

Pretrial Motions

Pretrial motions are requests made by the defense to exclude evidence, dismiss charges, or otherwise shape the case. In Philadelphia state court, oral argument is routinely granted for substantive motions. The judge will schedule a court date for the attorney to appear and advocate on the issues.

In federal court, most motions are decided on the briefs without oral argument. The judge rules based solely on the filed papers. This takes away the opportunity for defense counsel to directly address the judge and emphasize key points. Federal judges also tend to be more skeptical of defense motions, making it harder to get evidence suppressed or charges dropped pretrial.

Bench vs. Jury Trials

Defendants have a right to a jury trial for serious criminal charges. In a jury trial, citizens from the community decide your guilt. The judge makes rulings of law but the jury weighs the facts. In a bench trial, the judge takes on both roles – deciding legal issues and reaching the verdict.

Philadelphia state court judges handle a high volume of cases. They tend to encourage negotiated pleas and rarely take bench trials. Federal judges have more time and are often open to bench trials, especially if the defense waives appeal rights. The judge may see things differently than a local jury. Bench trials are uncommon in state court but provide more options in federal criminal cases.

Appellate Review

Appellate review is the process of appealing your conviction or sentence to a higher court. Pennsylvania state court decisions get appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court or Supreme Court. Federal criminal cases get appealed to the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state and federal appellate courts differ in how they analyze cases. Federal courts are perceived as more “pro-government” and tend to favor prosecutors. Reversals of convictions or sentences are uncommon in the federal system. The Third Circuit also takes a very long time to decide appeals – often over a year. State appeals tend to be decided more quickly and provide better odds of relief in appropriate cases.

Corruption Concerns

There are unfortunately occasional corruption issues that arise in both the state and federal courts. In Philadelphia, there is a greater risk of corruption at the state level. Local Philadelphia politics infamously intersects with the court system in some cases. Patronage hiring, kickbacks, and bias in favor of politically-connected defendants is not unheard of.

Federal courts operate on a national level and are more insulated from local politics. Federal prosecutors and judges are accountable to DOJ in Washington D.C., not local officials. Allegations of corruption are far less common, although abuse of power is not impossible. Depending on the accusations, the federal system may provide more impartial justice.

Pretrial Diversion Programs

Pennsylvania state courts offer several pretrial diversion programs like ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) for first-time offenders. These programs allow charges to be dismissed and records expunged upon completion of a probation-like term. The federal system has no equivalent – diversion is only available through cooperation and entering the WitSec program, which is very rare.

Diversion programs provide a powerful incentive for prompt plea agreements in state court. No matter how strong the evidence, defendants know charges can eventually go away by completing the program. This makes weak state cases easier to fight or bargain down. Federal prosecutors have less incentive to compromise since diversion is off the table.


One final difference is the availability of parole. Pennsylvania state prisoners can be released on parole after serving their minimum sentence. This provides an incentive for good behavior and rehabilitation. Federal inmates must serve at least 85% of their sentence with limited exceptions. Early release is only possible by a direct petition from the Bureau of Prisons, which is rarely granted.

The lack of federal parole removes hope during incarceration. It also eliminates any chance of a rehabilitated prisoner returning to the community early through parole. All federal sentences must be served until at least the 85% mark, no matter how clearly the inmate has been reformed.


Facing criminal prosecution is always daunting. The differences between the state and federal systems in Philadelphia can have an enormous impact on the outcome of your case. This overview highlights the key distinctions in pretrial process, sentencing, trials, pleas, and appeals. Consulting an experienced local defense lawyer is essential to understand how these differences apply to your specific situation.

With proper guidance, the advantages and disadvantages of being in state vs. federal court can be effectively navigated. An adept defense attorney knows how to work both systems and achieve the best result possible. Don’t assume the prosecution’s initial charges are set in stone – a skilled negotiator can often find ways to secure a better resolution. Despite the high conviction rates, viable defenses exist in both state and federal court with the right legal strategy.

If you or a loved one are facing criminal prosecution in Philadelphia, reach out for a free consultation. An experienced local defense lawyer can thoroughly explain the options and develop a game plan tailored to the unique circumstances of your case. Take advantage of the differences between the two systems to put yourself in the best position. A customized defense makes all the difference.


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