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What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes? – Part 2

Criminal Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes? – Part 2

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Demystifying State and Federal Crimes

In law, there are situations when a person may be found liable for violating a state’s law and other cases where one may be found guilty of violating federal law. Furthermore, some cases are restricted for federal courts while others can be heard by state courts.

There is a big difference between the procedures for trying a person for violating federal laws and for violating a state’s laws. The following article seeks to differentiate between state and federal laws, provide examples of state and federal crimes, explain the jurisdiction of state and federal courts, and present scenarios where a state crime can turn out to be a federal crime.


State vs. Federal Laws

The provisions of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution allow states the independence to enforce law and order in their respective jurisdictions. However, in cases involving the welfare of the whole nation, federal law takes precedence over state law. Some aspects of criminal law are governed by both federal and state laws, but a state statute that is a contradiction of federal law is deemed to be unconstitutional and is therefore null and void.

For example, the Texas gun laws allow a felon to gain possession of a firearm 5 years after being let out of prison. However, the individual should only bear the fire arm in their residence. If such an individual’s home is raided by federal agents, the person may be charged with violating federal laws on gun possession.

The feds also have monopoly over certain areas of criminal law. For example, counterfeiting of money is regulated by federal laws.

State laws are the laws enacted in each separate state in the U.S. State laws are only applicable to the visitors, residents, corporations, and business organizations based in that particular state. A state law may provide more rights or entitlements to state residents than those provided by federal law, but it cannot restrict or reduce the rights or entitlements of U.S. citizens. Federal laws are created at the national level and affect the whole nation. Federal laws are based on the U.S. Constitution which preserve the rights of all U.S. citizens and establishes the responsibility and power of the government.

State vs. Federal Crimes

A majority of the offenses are classified as state crimes. Most of the common crimes such as assault, robbery, burglary, theft, and rape, are state crimes. The state of Texas deals with criminal offenses that affect the public’s safety within its borders. Therefore, if an unlawful act disturbs public safety, it is dealt with at the state courts. The federal government has no power to prosecute Texas citizens except under certain circumstances.

Federal crimes are few because federal lawmakers unlike state lawmakers only pass laws affecting the nation. State lawmakers on the other hand can pass laws about anything provided it does not contradict the U.S. Constitution. For example, counterfeiting is classified as a federal crime because the duty of printing money lies with the federal government. The following are some of the offenses that are deemed to be federal crimes:

  • Any offense that occurs on federal land or involving federal officers like a murder committed on a military base or a national forest
  • An offense where the offender crosses state boundaries, for example, the defendant kidnaps a person in Texas and takes them to Nevada
  • An offense where the criminal conduct is committed in several states, for example, a scheme concerning internet fraud that affects victims and involves perpetrators from multiple states. In such a situation, a state crime turns out to be a federal crime.
  • Customs and immigration violations, like international human trafficking or importing of child pornography.

State vs. Federal Courts

State courts are formed by a state for ruling on disputes occurring in that state and for the interpretation of state law. Federal courts are formed by the U.S. Constitution for deliberating on issues concerned with the Constitution and laws that have been passed by Congress.

The difference between state and federal courts is determined by jurisdiction. A court’s jurisdiction refers to the cases that the court has authority to hear. State courts are allowed to hear all of the common cases like those involving robbery, broken contracts, family disputes, and traffic violations. However, these courts cannot hear lawsuits involving bankruptcy, copyright, patent, or lawsuits against the U.S. government.

In contrast, federal court jurisdiction is limited in the kind of cases it can preside over. Congress and the U.S. Constitution provide the types of cases that can be heard in federal courts. Generally, federal courts hear:

  • Cases that involve a violation of federal laws or the U.S. Constitution
  • Cases that involve citizens from different states if the disputed amount is more than $75,000
  • Patent, copyright, maritime, and bankruptcy cases
  • Cases where the United States is one of the parties
  • Prosecution in State and Federal Courts

State and federal courts also differ in the way they prosecute criminals. Federal courts often use grand juries to deliberate on issues of whether to charge, or indict, a person for a particular offense. In state courts, many cases are finalized without a jury.

Another striking difference is the investigation of federal and state crimes. Federal agents are involved with investigating federal crimes. This includes officials from the DEA and FBI. State crimes are mainly investigated by local detectives and law enforcement agencies.

Double Jeopardy vs. Dual Sovereignty

In rare cases, a person can be tried in a state and federal court for the same offense. Double jeopardy is a legal concept protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that states you cannot be repeatedly charged for the same crime. However, when multiple states are involved, you are considered to have committed separate crimes. The dual sovereignty concept allows both the state and federal governments to charge you for the same offense.

For example, if you are accused of smuggling drugs from Texas to Nevada and the state of Texas prosecutes you for smuggling drugs but releases you on a technicality, the federal government can prosecute you for the same crime and sentence you to imprisonment.

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