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What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes?

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The differences between state and federal crimes may be complicated. Because laws overlap in the criminal sphere, criminal courts sometimes argue about in what venue a crime should be prosecuted.

If a crime occurs in one state, it’s typically considered a state crime if it expressly breaks a federal law. If a crime is committed in more than one state or the alleged activity crosses state lines or it occurs in context with a federal property, it may be considered a federal crime.


  • State crimes reflect conduct that violates laws of the state or local city, town, or municipal government, including traffic violations, sexual assault, murder, or other conduct that’s circumscribed by these laws. State or local courts are formed by the state.
  • In contrast, federal crimes involve violations of certain itemized federal statutes, including mail fraud, immigration matters, IRS violations, violent crimes, drug trafficking or possession, kidnapping, destruction or damage of mailboxes, and counterfeiting allegations. In general, federal laws address matters of national concern. Federal courts consider disputes that involve the U.S. Constitution and the laws passed by Congress.

Constitutional Supremacy Clause

When a crime seems that it might be considered as a state or federal crime, courts refer to the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, federal law must trump state law or federal authorities will decide the course, especially when the alleged criminals are of interest to federal law enforcement. For instance, the example of “Don’t Mess with Texas” doesn’t exceed the Constitutional Supremacy Clause. Federal law supersedes state law.


It’s important to note that the legal jurisdiction in which the case is tried and the federal vs. state process are often similar. A federal court is usually held by the U.S. district as close to where the crime was committed as possible. A notable exception to this general rule is if the crime was committed in several jurisdictions.

In contrast, the jurisdiction is typically held by the county or city in which the crime occurred in state court.

Investigation and Prosecution

Federal agencies such as the Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), and others typically investigate federal criminal offenses. Local or state law enforcement may work with federal agencies in some cases.

Federal crimes are frequently prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the state or local area in which the crime occurred. In some situations, a U.S. Department of Justice or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigator participates in the federal prosecution.

The federal courts typically investigate and prosecute cases in which the country is a party; cases in which violations of federal law or the U.S. Constitution are involved; cases arising between citizens in different states when the amount in question is greater than $75,000; and when bankruptcy, patent, maritime, or copyright cases are involved. In certain instances, both state and federal courts will have jurisdiction. In such a situation, the parties may elect to try to state or federal court.

If you are under investigation for or charged with a federal offense, you must engage a criminal defense attorney who’s licensed to practice in the court in which the case is pending or receives court permission to practice in the federal court to defend the criminal matter.

Because the state criminal justice system is often quite different from the federal criminal justice system, it’s essential to hire a criminal defense attorney with federal court experience.

If you haven’t been charged with a crime, it’s extremely important to contact an experienced criminal attorney. Your rights must be protected in an investigation. How the case proceeds from an investigation can dramatically affect your case outcome.

State vs. Federal Court Punishment and Sentencing

If you’re found guilty of a state crime, the state court is typically guided by state legislation regarding penalties and sentencing. Texas is on a short list of states that allow juries to establish punishment in a felony case. That fact may benefit the individual found guilty of a crime.

Although it’s challenging for any group of 12 people to agree on punishment, the end result may be better than relying on the judge to determine penalties and sentencing. Texas judges are known to be tough on crime.

The range of punishment varies widely in Texas. For instance, if a person is convicted or murder but has no criminal history, the prison sentence range spans five years to life. If a jury sentences him or her to 10 years or less, the jurors may recommend a probated or suspended sentence to the judge. Their recommendation is binding. Otherwise, the judge can’t probate the sentence if he or she is convicted of an aggravated offense.

According to Penal Code Chapter 12 of Texas Statutes, jury sentencing occurs in non-capital cases. It’s possible for the accused to ask for the jury to establish punishment in the event he or she is convicted before the trial occurs. In most Texas felony cases, the accused elects jury punishment. If the accused doesn’t make this election, the judge will set punishment. The punishment hearing typically follows the conviction pronouncement.

If a defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty in federal court, the judge must use the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to advise the calculation of penalties for these serious offenses in the sentencing phase. In January 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the guidelines’ mandatory nature was unconstitutional. In other words, sentencing guidelines are not mandatorily applied, but they must be used in making these considerations.

It is up to the federal judge to determine the range within the sentencing guidelines. Certain factors, such dollar amount involved in a financial crime, the defendant’s role in an overall scheme, and the defendant’s criminal record are considered. The guidelines are used by federal judges as a type of advisory tool to use when exercising sentencing discretion.

Congress reviews the sentencing scheme from time to time. It may act to change the current sentencing scheme in the future.

Criminal Sentencing

An experienced criminal defense attorney provides a wide range of services. Importantly, he answers the criminal defendant’s most urgent questions about sentencing if found guilty. The criminal defense attorney provides information about the highest or lowest available sentence in state or federal court. If the jurisdiction relies on sentencing guidelines, the experienced criminal lawyer summarizes sub-issues that may apply to these guidelines to arrive at some calculations.

Whether the defendant’s case travels through the state criminal justice system, the federal system, or both, it’s important to know the bottom line. Federal justice system sentences tend to be higher than similar crimes in the state. That is, sentences imposed by federal courts are typically longer than those authorized by the state. For this reason alone, one of the most important ways to affect the case outcome depends on the criminal defense attorney’s argument to sort the case into the state justice system.

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