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Federal vs. State Crimes: What You Need to Know

01 April 2017

There are two sets of legal codes in the United States: state and federal. The difference between a federal crime and a state crime is that federal crimes break the legal code set by the U.S. government while state crimes violate the legal code set by the state you live in. Sometimes, however, a crime will fall under both categories.

What are Federal Crimes?

Whereas state crimes are usually committed against person and property, federal crimes involve issues concerning national interest. For example, counterfeiting is considered a federal offense because printing money is the duty of the federal government.

It is considered a federal crime when:

  • The crime takes place on federal property or involves federal officers. For example, theft on a military base, murder in an Indian reservation, or assault against a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent.
  • The defendant crossed state lines. For example, someone takes a kidnapping victim from Florida to Georgia.
  • The criminal act crosses state lines. For example, victims and perpetrators of a mail fraud scheme are located in several states.
  • The crime involves immigration and customs violations. For example, the defendant imports child pornography or engages in human trafficking across different countries.

Federal crimes are investigated by federal government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Border Patrol, or even the Secret Service.

The following crimes may fall under federal jurisdiction:

  • Drug trafficking
  • International money laundering
  • White-collar crime
  • Identity theft
  • Organized crime (RICO)
  • Crimes that include weapons charges
  • Computer-related fraud and crime
  • Crimes related to immigration
  • Credit card and ATM fraud
  • Major thefts like stealing art, jewelry, and gems
  • Public corruption crimes
  • Intellectual property crimes
  • Mail fraud
  • Hate crimes

What are State Crimes?

Most crimes fall under the category of state crimes. This includes murder, robbery, arson, and rape. These violations of state law are investigated by the local police, county sheriffs, or state agents.

Examples of state crimes include:

  • Homicide
  • Murder
  • Assault and battery
  • Robbery
  • Burglary
  • Arson
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Grand theft
  • Aggravated assault
  • False imprisonment
  • Fraud offenses
  • Sexual battery
  • Resisting with violence
  • Stalking/aggravated stalking
  • Domestic violence

Federal vs. State Crimes: Prosecution

Federal crimes are prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys in a federal court before an appointed federal judge.

State crimes are prosecuted by the state district attorney or city attorney in a state court before an elected state judge.

Federal vs. State Crimes: Punishment

Because federal crimes are considered more serious than state crimes, the punishment is also more severe. Someone who is convicted of a federal crime faces a much harsher penalty and longer prison sentence than a state convict.

After a conviction, federal crime sentences are served at a federal prison. Those convicted of a state crime will do time in a state correctional facility.

State prisons tend to house large populations of violent criminals. Because federal crimes are usually white collar in nature, federal prisons take in the non-violent offenders.

Federal Law over State Law

Where there is a conflict between federal law and state law, the Supremacy Clause and Doctrine of Preemption under the U.S. Constitution dictates that federal law is the “supreme law of the land”.

Whether you are charged with a state crime or a federal crime, it is most important to have the best legal representation to handle your defense. Consult with an experienced lawyer who is knowledgeable about federal crimes and state crimes. Call Piotrowski Law today for a confidential consultation.

Chad Piotrowski - post author

Chad Piotrowski is a criminal defense attorney in Miami, Florida. He is a former Miami-Dade Prosecutor and has practiced criminal law, exclusively, for more than 10 years.

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