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The Difference Between State and Federal Crimes

When discussing crimes, it's essential to understand that there are two primary jurisdictions under which crimes can be prosecuted: state and federal. When many people think about crimes, they think about state crimes. However, there are also federal crimes prosecuted in separate federal courts. It is important to note that various jurisdictions have unique legal systems and courts, each with its responsibilities for dealing with specific offenses. Knowing the distinction between state and federal crimes is critical when dealing with legal matters, as it can significantly influence your case's approach and potential outcomes.

Federal vs. State Jurisdiction in North Carolina

 In the United States, most criminal cases are prosecuted in state rather than federal courts. This distribution of authority is established by the Constitution, which grants state governments the power to create and enforce their criminal laws. In contrast, the federal government makes and prosecutes federal criminal laws. The federal government makes federal criminal laws. The specific type of crime must be a federal crime for it to be prosecuted in federal court. 

Some key points that differentiate state and federal crimes are as follows:

  1. Jurisdiction and Law Creation:
    • State Crimes: State governments have the authority to create and enforce laws within their respective territories. This includes defining what constitutes a crime and establishing the penalties for those crimes.
    • Federal Crimes: The federal government creates and enforces laws that apply throughout the entire country. Federal crimes are those that violate federal laws and fall within the purview of the federal court system.
  2. Severity of Offenses:
    • State Crimes: While state crimes can include serious offenses, they typically encompass a broader range of offenses, including misdemeanors and lower-level felonies. Common state crimes include DUI (Driving Under the Influence), assault, burglary, theft, and drug possession.
    • Federal Crimes: Typically, federal crimes are more severe offenses that involve a significant national or federal interest. Some examples of federal crimes include drug trafficking across state lines, terrorism, human trafficking, bank robbery, and certain white-collar crimes.
  3. Prosecution:
    • State Crimes: State crimes are usually prosecuted by state or local authorities, such as district attorneys or state attorneys general, in state courts.
    • Federal Crimes: Federal crimes are typically prosecuted by federal prosecutors, such as U.S. Attorneys, in federal district courts or specialized federal courts.
  4. Penalties:
    • State Crimes: Penalties for state crimes vary by state and the severity of the offense. They may include fines, probation, community service, and incarceration in state prisons or local jails.
    • Federal Crimes: Federal sentencing guidelines are often stricter than state laws, leading to potentially harsher penalties, such as lengthy prison sentences in federal correctional institutions, significant fines, and mandatory restitution.
  5. Trial Location:
    • State Crimes: If charged with a state crime, the trial will take place in a state court located within the state where the offense occurred. For example, if you are accused of a crime in North Carolina, you will be tried in a North Carolina court.
    • Federal Crimes: If charged with a federal crime, the trial will occur in a federal court, usually located within the federal judicial district where the offense occurred.

It's crucial to understand the differences between state and federal crimes and their respective jurisdictions and potential consequences to make informed decisions regarding legal strategies and defense when facing criminal charges. If you find yourself in a legal situation, consulting with an experienced attorney specializing in the relevant area of law can be incredibly helpful. While state crimes are generally less severe than federal crimes, this is not always the case. Federal crimes are typically reserved for more severe offenses such as drug trafficking, terrorism, bank robbery, and other similar crimes. State crimes can include crimes such as DUI, assault, and burglary. 

Another difference between state and federal crimes is that the federal government generally prosecutes federal crimes. On the other hand, state crimes are prosecuted by state governments. You will likely face trial in federal court if you are charged with a federal crime. If you are accused of a state crime, you will be tried in a North Carolina court. 

State and Federal Charges Can Overlap

Sometimes, a person can be prosecuted for the same crime by both the state and federal governments due to overlapping laws. This is possible because of the legal principle of "dual sovereignty," which allows both governments to pursue charges without violating the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This clause protects individuals from being tried twice for the same offense by the same entity, whether the state or federal government. However, since the state and federal governments are considered separate entities, they can each pursue their own separate prosecutions for the same crime. Determining jurisdiction depends on factors such as the location of the crime, involvement of federal property, or impact on interstate commerce. Location of the Crime: Generally, the jurisdiction of the crime is determined by where the criminal act occurred. If the offense took place entirely within one state, state law applies. The federal government may have jurisdiction if the crime involves activities in multiple states. Federal Property: If the crime occurs on federal property (e.g., federal buildings, national parks, military bases) or involves federal employees or federal funds, it can be prosecuted as a federal crime. Interstate Commerce: If the criminal conduct involves activities that cross state lines and impact interstate commerce, it may fall under federal jurisdiction. Embezzlement Example: If someone is charged with embezzlement in North Carolina, they will likely be prosecuted in a state court because the crime occurred within the state's borders. State laws will apply, and the state authorities will handle the prosecution. For example, embezzlement charges in North Carolina would typically be prosecuted in a state court. Still, under certain circumstances, it could also be treated as a federal crime if federal interests are involved. In cases where a crime occurs on federal property or spans multiple states, authorities at the national level may choose to prosecute separately. This highlights the significance of obtaining skilled legal representation that can effectively navigate the complexities of both state and federal law.

The Process of Being Charged With Federal Crime

In the event that you are accused of a federal crime, it is probable that a federal law enforcement agency, such as the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), or ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives), would execute your arrest. Subsequently, you will be taken to federal court for trial unless you decide to accept a plea deal before the trial commences. Federal trials differ from state trials as they are presided over by federal judges and follow federal rules of procedure and evidence.

If found guilty of a federal crime, you will be sentenced according to federal sentencing guidelines, which can be more stringent than their state counterparts. These guidelines provide a framework for judges to determine the appropriate sentence based on the severity of the offense, any aggravating factors, and the defendant's criminal history.

Federal prisons are separate from state prisons and are generally considered more secure. Inmates serving time in federal prisons often face longer sentences, as federal crimes tend to carry harsher penalties compared to state crimes. Federal prisons abide by federal law regarding their conditions and regulations. In court, federal prosecutors face the challenging task of proving the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, similar to their state counterparts. This rigorous standard is in place to safeguard the rights of the accused and guarantee a just trial.

Common Examples of Federal Crimes

There are many different types of federal crimes, but some of the most common types of federal crimes include the following:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Bank robbery
  • Money laundering
  • Fraud
  • Bribery
  • Terrorism
  • Child pornography

There are mandatory minimum sentences federal judges are required to impose when the defendant has been convicted. The judge does not have discretion when it comes to sentencing. They must give the defendant a minimum sentence. For example, if you have been convicted of drug trafficking, you will face a minimum five-year prison sentence. Federal judges can sentence a defendant to life in prison or even receive the death penalty.

The Process of Being Charged With a State Crime

If you have been charged with a state crime, you will likely be arrested by local or state law enforcement. After you are arrested, you will be brought to a state court. You will be sentenced according to North Carolina's sentencing guidelines if convicted of a state crime. 

State crimes are often less severe than federal crimes and are prosecuted by state prosecutors. State court judges often have more discretion when it comes to sentencing defendants. The sentence you receive for a state crime will vary depending on the judge. Some of the most commonly charged state crimes include the following:

  • Burglary
  • Theft
  • Assault
  • DUI
  • Prostitution

There may be no mandatory minimum sentences for state-level crimes. The judge has discretion regarding sentencing; you can receive a lighter sentence if they believe it is warranted. 

Contact a Charlotte Criminal Defense Attorney

Whether you have been charged with a state or federal crime, you must contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. However, federal crimes are generally more severe than state crimes and carry more severe punishments. However, the penalties for state crimes can also be severe. Contact the Charlotte criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC, to schedule a free case evaluation.