The Difference Between State Charges Verus Federal Charges in the United States

December 19, 2023

The distinction between state and federal charges in the United States is a fundamental aspect of its legal system, rooted in the country’s federalist structure. Understanding this difference is crucial as it affects how legal cases are handled, from investigation to prosecution and punishment. In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between state and federal charges over several dimensions, including jurisdiction, types of crimes, legal processes, and penal systems.

Jurisdiction: The Basis of the Distinction

  • State Jurisdiction: State charges are brought under state laws, which are created by individual states. Each state has its own criminal code. State courts typically handle the vast majority of criminal cases – from traffic violations and theft to assault and murder. These cases are usually tried in the court system of the state where the crime occurred.

  • Federal Jurisdiction: Federal charges are based on laws passed by the United States Congress and involve violations of federal law. Federal jurisdiction is typically invoked in cases that cross state lines, involve federal property or officials, or violate U.S. federal statutes. Examples include immigration law violations, drug trafficking across state borders, and crimes committed on federal land.

Types of Crimes: What Constitutes State vs. Federal Offenses

  • State Crimes: These encompass a wide range of criminal activities defined by state laws. They can include robbery, assault, murder, theft, DUIs, and more localized crimes. Many criminal activities fall exclusively under state jurisdiction unless they involve federal laws or cross state boundaries.

  • Federal Crimes: These are specific to violations of federal statutes. They include immigration crimes, tax evasion, counterfeiting, crimes involving multiple states (like trafficking or large-scale fraud), and offenses against federal institutions or officials.

Legal Processes: Investigation to Prosecution

  • Investigation: State crimes are typically investigated by city or state police. Federal offenses are investigated by federal agencies like the FBI, DEA, ATF, or Homeland Security.

  • Prosecution: State attorneys or district attorneys prosecute state crimes. Federal crimes are prosecuted by United States Attorneys, working under the Department of Justice.

  • Courts: State charges are tried in state courts, which can range from lower-level courts handling misdemeanors to state supreme courts. Federal charges are tried in U.S. District Courts, and appeals go to U.S. Courts of Appeal and potentially to the Supreme Court.

Penal Systems: Sentencing and Incarceration

  • Sentencing Guidelines: Both systems have their sentencing guidelines. Federal crimes often have mandatory minimum sentences and may result in longer prison terms compared to state crimes, particularly for drug-related offenses.

  • Incarceration: Individuals convicted of state crimes are usually incarcerated in state prisons, while those convicted of federal crimes serve their sentences in federal prisons.

Examples of Overlapping Jurisdiction

In some cases, a criminal act can violate both state and federal laws, leading to dual jurisdiction. For instance, a drug trafficking operation might violate state drug laws and federal interstate commerce laws. In such situations, state and federal prosecutors may decide who will take the lead in prosecution, or the defendant could face charges in both state and federal courts.

Differences in Legal Protections and Rights

While defendants in both systems have constitutional protections, there are differences in procedural rules. For instance, the federal system has its own set of procedural rules, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which differ in some aspects from state procedures.

Impact of the Differences

The distinction between state and federal charges can significantly impact defendants. Federal cases often involve more extensive investigations, potentially harsher sentences, and different procedural rules. Additionally, the resources available to federal prosecutors can often exceed those at the state level, impacting the dynamics of legal defense and plea negotiations.

Political and Social Considerations

The division between state and federal jurisdiction also reflects broader political and social considerations. It allows for a balance between state sovereignty and federal authority, a core principle of American federalism. This balance ensures that states can enact and enforce laws reflecting their social and political values while maintaining nationwide standards in certain areas.


In summary, state and federal charges differ in terms of jurisdiction, types of crimes handled, legal processes, and penal systems. This distinction, integral to the U.S. legal system, ensures that a range of legal mechanisms are available to address the diverse array of criminal activities. It underscores the complexity and adaptability of the legal system in addressing crime while balancing the autonomy of states with the overarching authority of the federal government. Understanding these differences is key for legal professionals, defendants, and anyone interested in the workings of the American legal system.

If you are under investigation for a federal crime, then contact the Law Offices of John D. Rogers to schedule a consultation with an experienced Orange County federal crimes attorney.

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