In many countries across the free world, there’s just one code of law. But the US is different, with legislation at both federal and state levels. You may ask yourself why America has two distinct and separate legal systems when most countries seem to manage perfectly well with just one.
There are some excellent reasons why the US takes a dual approach to justice. Some of those reasons date back to America’s founding when the US Constitution aimed to ensure that the national government didn’t have too much power.
In the centuries since then, federal and state laws have evolved, reflecting changing circumstances and recognizing that a different approach is often required for crimes that have an interstate, national, or international dimension.
At the highest level, you could argue that federal crimes harm the nation, whereas state crimes harm individuals. But that would be a massive oversimplification.
To help you understand the practical differences, we’ve put together this clear and easy-to-read comparison of federal and state crimes. We’ll explain which offenses belong where, how the separate courts work, and how the penalties and punishments differ.
There are many differences between federal and state crimes, but let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first. Federal crimes are tried in federal courts with federal judges and prosecutors. State crimes are tried in state courts with state judges and prosecutors.
That distinction is important because, in each jurisdiction, there are specific differences in how judges are appointed and work, in the offenses and crimes they hear, and the penalties and punishments they hand down.
Almost any crime you can think of - like assault, arson, and drug offenses - will be prosecuted at a state level. Crimes only reach the federal court if there’s a specific federal interest - in other words, they feature a cross-state, national, international, constitutional, or governmental dimension.
In some cases, the boundaries between federal and state law can overlap, or the crime violates both codes. When that happens, state and federal prosecutors will make the call between them. If the initial prosecution fails, the other jurisdiction may subsequently bring the case to court.
Many state crimes have no federal dimension, so the answer to that question is no. If there’s no federal interest in the crime, then by definition, it comes under the jurisdiction of the state courts.
These rules make for some interesting scenarios. If you assaulted the clerk in your local bank, for example, you’d be tried under state law. But if you assaulted a clerk in a National Park, you’d face trial in a federal court because you attacked a federal employee.
All 50 states agree on the definition of what constitutes a crime. This is especially true concerning the upper end of the scale for serious offenses like rape, kidnapping, extortion, or murder.
However, there are many differences in terms of the laws, and interpretations vary by state. The legal status of cannabis is an obvious example, as is gambling. Moreover, what might be seen as a severe crime in one state might be legal in another: for example, prostitution is lawful in some parts of Nevada but is illegal in the remaining 49 states.
Penalties and punishments for state and federal crimes vary in form and severity. In cases where the two systems judge a similar crime, federal courts tend to hand down stronger punishments, and strictly mandated sentences are more common. Jail, fines, and deportation are all potential sanctions for those found guilty of a crime under both codes.
The ultimate sanction of capital punishment is permitted under federal law, and the death penalty is also allowed in just over half of American states.
Unless there’s a specific federal dimension to the crime, the case will most likely be referred to the state courts. Here’s an overview of which offenses go where:
For a crime to be heard in a federal court, there has to be a federal interest, which naturally limits the potential number of offenses. In practice, federal courts handle:
Cases that don’t fall under the remit of federal law belong in the state court. Perhaps 90% or more of criminal cases are heard here, including:
Being accused of a crime is a grave matter. But regardless of whether you’re involved in a state or federal trial, you’re still entitled to due process and legal representation; plus, you remain innocent until proven guilty.
There are definite differences in how federal and state courts work, so you must choose a criminal lawyer with experience in the area. A trusted attorney will argue your case effectively and present you in the best possible light in court. They’ll also ensure that you follow the correct procedures and don’t do anything that might prejudice your case.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re accused of a federal or state crime: you still need the best legal representation you can get. For expert and professional legal advice, call the team at Marble for a free case assessment: we specialize in assisting people accused of federal and state crimes and are here to help.