When you're facing criminal charges, either as a first-time or repeat offender, understanding your charges and the penalties that come with them is vital. One point of confusion for people who are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system is whether their crime is considered a felony or a misdemeanor, and whether a state or federal court will try their case.
Classifying different charges is relatively easy: misdemeanor charges are any crime that has a maximum sentence of a year or less in city or county jail. Felony charges are any crime that carries a sentence of a year or more in state or federal prison.
State crimes are any crimes that violate state statutes, while federal crimes are crimes against federal law. That sounds fairly simple in theory, but many state and federal laws are identical. If a person commits crimes against both the state and federal government, where does his or her case go? That question is usually worked out between the law enforcement agencies handling the case.
Both misdemeanors and felonies can be tried in state or federal court. However, federal punishments are often far harsher than state punishments—so there are relatively few federal misdemeanors.
What Kind of Crimes Trigger Federal Charges?
There are multiple situations that would escalate a crime from state court to federal jurisdiction. In general, most crimes are the state's responsibility. For instance, murder or grand larceny charges would end up in the court of the city or county the alleged crime was committed. There are important exceptions to this rule.
If your charges involve the following, it will likely end up before a federal judge:
- If your crime took place on federal property
- If it was a crime against a federal entity
- If it took place across state lines
- If you were the suspect of a federal investigation
- If you were caught by a federal agency
- If it was a crime specifically outlawed by federal statutes
To address that last bullet point, some crimes are under federal jurisdiction no matter where or how it took place. For example, tax evasion and mail fraud are crimes against the IRS and the United States Post Office, respectively. Crimes that cross state lines or include multiple districts often receive federal attention as well.
Crimes specifically prosecuted by the federal government include:
- Drug trafficking and mass production
- Aircraft hijacking
- Acts of terrorism
- Credit card fraud
- Criminal enterprises (organized crime)
- Child pornography production/trafficking
- Violating immigration law
- Identity theft
- Violent crimes against federal employees
Difference in Penalties for Federal & State Crimes
Violent crimes like murder or assault in the course of committing a felony have similar penalties in state and federal courts. In general, federal sentencing is tougher on crime than state courts, but that's not always the case (and judges have discretion regarding sentencing). However, certain federal crimes trigger mandatory minimums—meaning a federal judge may have less freedom to lighten your sentence.
For example, the minimum for causing an explosion that kills someone on federal property is 20 years. This does not apply solely to violent crimes. First-time, non-violent drug trafficking charges come with a
10-year minimum sentence. A third offense, violent or not, is a minimum sentence of life in prison.
In addition, the federal prison system did away with parole in 1987. While some prisoners are able to take time off their sentence with good behavior (up to 54 days a year), sentences automatically eliminate the possibility of parole—usually a measure used for exceptionally violent defendants in state courts. Even then, the sentence-shortening allowance for good behavior doesn't apply to life sentences.
Ultimately, the likelihood of serving a longer sentence or a life term is higher in federal court—which is why it's vital to hire the best possible defender for your case.
If you're facing federal charges, you'll need to contact a criminal defense attorney who has experience trying federal cases. Defense experience in federal courts is a vital asset only certain lawyers possess.