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What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes?

Criminal Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes?

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State Crimes vs. Federal Crimes

One of the most important features of the government of the United States is the separation of state and federal governments. Although these entities are closely related and often work together, they each serve different functions.

This is very apparent in the field of law enforcement. The application of the law and the filing of criminal charges are handled in different ways by governments at the state and local level. For example, certain offenses are labeled state crimes while others count as federal offenses.

Here are some important distinctions that point out the difference between federal and state crimes.


Exploring the Difference

Most people are aware that some offenses are prosecuted in state courts, such as a county courthouse, while other issues are tried in federal court. What makes one offense a state crime and the other a federal offense?

To understand the difference, it’s helpful to understand what constitutes each category of crimes.

State Crimes

The vast majority of crimes committed are state level offenses. If you think of a few common crimes, like robbery or assault, you would be thinking of state crimes.

In general, the state of Texas handles criminal offenses that affect the safety of the public within its borders. If an illegal action disturbs that safety, it is handled at the level of state or county courts.

While the federal government does have the power to prosecute Texas citizens, it only does so under specific circumstances.

Federal Crimes

Federal crimes are those which involve an offense against the government or which have certain characteristics.

For example, a mail fraud scheme would be considered a federal offense. This type of scam uses the United States Postal Service, which is a federal organization. Misuse of government services or property is considered a crime against the federal government so these offenses are handled in federal courts.

Also, some offenses commonly handled at the state level can be upgraded to federal courts in certain cases. This often happens with drug cases. A person in possession of a large amount of drugs may be prosecuted at the state level. However, if such a person tried to transport those drugs across state lines, they may be prosecuted on federal charges. This is because interstate commerce is considered to be under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

The Role Of Jurisdiction

State and federal governments divide the cases they prosecute by jurisdiction. Jurisdiction simply refers to the type of crimes that are handled by a particular court.

For example, the jurisdiction of Texas generally applies to crimes that concern the state only. This includes crimes committed against the state’s residents, crimes committed within its border and offenses that threaten its safety.

The jurisdiction of the federal government includes all offenses which involve or target the US government. This jurisdiction can sometimes overlap with or take precedent over state crimes.

For example, a person commits a murder in Virginia and flees to Texas, where he commits another murder. In this case, the FBI might investigate the crime since the perpetrator crossed state lines for the purpose of committing a crime.

In some cases, the federal government may turn a case over to state authorities. For example, while banks are the jurisdiction of the federal government, state law enforcement may handle some small cases of bank robbery or other similar crimes. If an offense doesn’t present a significant threat to government property or institutions, it may be handled at the state level.

Prosecution Methods

A major difference between state and federal courts is the issue of prosecution. Each governing body has different methods for trying criminal offenses in court.

For example, federal courts often summon grand juries to decide whether to indict, or charge, a person with an offense. In state and county courts, many cases are closed without a jury trial.

Also, federal crimes are investigated by federal officials. This can include official from the FBI, DEA, ATF or another federal group. State crimes are often investigated by local law enforcement officers and detectives.

Because most crimes are handled in state court, and because of varying methods, federal cases often take much longer to resolve than cases at the state level. However, a case tried in either federal court or state court can lead to lengthy sentences and steep fines.

In rare cases, a person may be tried in both state and federal court on the same charge. While this does not happen often, notable incidents have occurred over the past few decades.

Sentencing Differences

There is a popular assumption that federal sentences are usually much harsher than offenses for convictions at the state level. This has some truth to it but it’s a misleading statement.

In general, federal crimes are seen as much more serious than state crimes. Federal crimes can include vast money laundering schemes or wire fraud, affecting many people. Typical state offenses include charges for getting into fistfights or driving while drunk.

The sentences for federal crimes may seem more harsh than state penalties but that is usually due to the fact that federal cases often involve more serious breaches of the law.

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