There are two codes of law in America, with legislation existing at both the federal and state levels. The vast majority of criminal prosecutions occur in state courts, but the trial will most likely unfold in federal court when there’s a federal interest.
Federal and state courts are the same, but different too. At the highest level, they share many of the same principles, rules, and procedures. But the more you drill down into the details, the more you become aware of the differences between the two jurisdictions.
If you’re charged with a crime in a federal court, it’s generally for something severe. What’s more, the penalties tend to be harsher than a charge in a state court. Read on to learn more about the subject, including a detailed explanation of exactly how a federal court works, your legal rights, the advantages of trial by jury or by a judge, how the process contrasts with a state court, and the critical importance of robust legal representation.
For a crime to be taken to a federal court, it has to have a federal interest. That could mean that the offense affected a federal officer, department, or agency or took place on federal land. Federal courts also get involved if there’s an interstate, national, international, constitutional, or governmental dimension to the case.
Certain areas of the law have traditionally been associated with federal courts, such as bankruptcy, anti-trust, and maritime crimes. On occasion, there’s an overlap between federal and state courts. When that happens, it’s up to the respective prosecutors to decide who charges the accused.
The most common cases brought to federal courts concern immigration or drug-related offenses. Other routine charges include fraud and crimes involves firearms or explosives.
The number of federal criminal prosecutions is tiny in comparison to state prosecutions. If you’re accused of a crime, you’ll almost certainly be tried in a state court. But if the statistics are anything to go by, that might be a good thing.
Recent data shows that of nearly 80,000 federal cases, only 2% went to trial. Of those cases, 90% of defendants pled guilty before the court case, while the remaining 8% had their cases dismissed. For the 2% of cases that did end in court, less than one in five defendants won their case.
The implications of those statistics are apparent. If you’re accused of a federal crime, your chances of acquittal are extremely low.
As with state law, there are two types of trial: a bench trial, where a judge adjudicates your case, and trial by jury, where the jurors deliver the verdict. There are two types of juries for the latter: a trial (or petit) jury consisting of six to 12 jurors and the (rarer) grand jury, made up of 16 to 23 citizens. There are some procedural differences between the two options and the types of offenses that apply.
You can only opt for a jury trial if certain conditions apply. It’s open to question whether a jury is better than a bench trial. Some legal professionals argue that a bench trial may be better if a highly complicated point of law is involved, plus it tends to take less time.
Against that, jurors might be more inclined to take on board softer, non-legal considerations, like whether the charge is proportionate to the crime or whether federal agents were over-zealous in their application of the law.
In theory, any US citizen accused of a crime is entitled to a trial by jury under the protections of the US constitution. In practice, however, that right doesn’t always apply. For example, unless the charge in a federal case carries a possible jail term, you can’t opt for trial by jury.
What’s more, the right to trial by jury only applies to US citizens. If you’re a non-national being tried for an immigration offense, for example, a judge will deliver the verdict.
In principle, the jury’s decision is final, their verdict stands, and the matter ends there. However, you should be aware of two points. First, the prosecution may appeal the decision. And second, in some cases, you could still face charges under state law. Note that the double jeopardy rule doesn’t apply here because federal and state laws are viewed as separate and distinct jurisdictions.
While US citizens enjoy greater protections and privileges in federal courts, all defendants are legally entitled to certain rights, including a speedy and fair trial, due process, and legal representation.
Victims and witnesses also enjoy several legal rights, including being shielded from the accused, notification of court procedures, the right to a fair hearing and restitution, alongside many other protections.
Defendants facing criminal prosecution in a federal court should be under no illusion: they’re in serious trouble and face significant consequences if they’re found guilty. That's why it’s so important to have expert, professional legal advice. Federal law differs from state law, meaning that your interests are best served by working with an expert in the area.
There’s another critical consideration. Given that most federal charges don’t reach court, a specialist federal law attorney can also advise you on the advantages and disadvantages of a plea bargain.
Although criminal prosecutions rarely reach a federal court, it’s usually for a very serious offense when it happens. When that’s the case, you need the support and professional advice of a lawyer with specific knowledge of federal law. Call the experienced team at Marble for a free case assessment to learn more about your options and gain expert input on the best course of action for your case.