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How are federal criminal charges different than state charges?

On Behalf of | Nov 14, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Pew Research reported the federal criminal system had 71,954 defendants in 2022.  In criminal cases, federal and state charges belong to different legal systems and jurisdictions.

Understanding the fundamental differences between these systems is important when dealing with charges to navigate the legal process effectively.


The primary distinction lies in the jurisdiction of the charges. Federal charges come from the United States government and violate federal laws. These laws cover a broad range of issues, such as immigration, tax evasion and crimes that occur across state lines. On the other hand, state charges come from the individual states. They deal with offenses that fall within state laws.

Nature of offenses

Federal charges often pertain to offenses that impact the nation as a whole or involve federal interests. These may include crimes against federal employees, drug trafficking that crosses state lines or offenses occurring on federal property. State charges address offenses that occur within the boundaries of a specific state, covering a diverse array of crimes from theft and assault to traffic violations.

Investigative agencies

The investigative agencies involved in federal and state charges differ. Federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration or the IRS investigate federal charges. State charges fall under the responsibilities of state and local law enforcement agencies.

Court system

Federal courts hear federal cases. The president appoints judges and the Senate places them in office. State courts hear state cases. Judges in these systems may serve by appointment or election.

Sentencing guidelines

Federal sentencing often involves strict guidelines that judges must adhere to, focusing on factors like the severity of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. State sentencing guidelines vary more widely, with states having their own set of rules and considerations.

Appeals process

Federal appeals go through the system that includes the United States Supreme Court as the highest authority. State appeals navigate through the state appellate courts. The state’s Supreme Court is the final appellate authority for state charges.

Understanding the differences between federal and state criminal charges is important for individuals involved in legal proceedings. Recognizing the distinctions affects the approach needed to build a sufficient defense.