When you are faced with criminal charges, one of the first things you need to know before you select your legal representation is whether the charges are for a federal or a state crime.

Attorneys and legal representatives are often more experienced at dealing with one or the other. To get the very best legal representation, you will need to find an attorney with experience at dealing with your exact criminal charges.

A Difference of Jurisdiction

The main difference between federal and state crimes is the jurisdiction. State courts are authorized to hear state crimes. These apply to the vast majority of offenses including robberies, traffic violations, broken contracts and cases involving divorce and family disputes.

Defendants charged with federal crimes have their cases heard in federal courts. Federal courts deal with crimes explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, or in cases where the United States is the plaintiff or defendant.

The federal crimes listed in the constitution include weapons crimes, smuggling cases, and tax crimes. Any crimes which involve a federal agency like the FBI, the DEA, the IRS, the ATF, and the US Postal service also qualify as federal crimes.

Cases between individual citizens of different states where the contested amount exceeds $75,000. Crimes committed on federal property, such as national parks or military premises also qualify as federal crimes.

Cases Prosecuted in Both Courts

Some crimes fall under both the jurisdiction of the federal and state courts. This is known as “dual sovereignty” and occurs when an individual faces charges for the same offense in both courts.

One of the most high-profile cases of dual sovereignty came when the NFL quarterback, Michael Vick was charged for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring. He was first charged in the federal courts because his crimes constituted federal crimes. Then, following his conviction and sentencing to 23 months in a federal prison facility, he faced charges for the same crime in a state court.


State and federal crimes are prosecuted in two completely different legal systems. Each system has different courthouses and different judges presiding over the cases.

The procedure for cases in each court is different. In federal courts for example, a government agency such as the FBI or DEA will likely present evidence. Attorney’s experienced in federal court cases will know how to use this evidence to formulate a strong defense argument and negotiate the best outcome.


The differences between federal and state crimes are also apparent in their sentencing. Federal judges have federal guidelines they must adhere to in their sentencing. This means that they often have a mandatory minimum sentence they must administer.

As a result, federal sentences tend to be longer than state sentences. The location of the sentencing also differs. Those convicted of federal crimes will serve the length of their sentences in a federal facility, while those that are convicted of state crimes go to state prisons.

Getting the right legal representation with experience dealing with similar charges in the same court is essential for mounting a strong defense. A good attorney will build a case specifically for the court hearing the case and the charges their client faces. This is why it is important to seek an attorney experienced in dealing with the federal courts when facing charges for federal crimes.