What is the Difference Between State and Federal Criminal Cases?

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There is a large difference between state and federal criminal cases. What do you think of when you hear that a heinous crime was committed? Most people will usually say murder, robbery, theft, rape et. al.  What most people don’t realize though, is that these crimes are violations of state, not federal, law. In fact, most criminal cases will typically be violations of state laws, and therefore will be tried in state courts. However, criminal cases that have to do with federal laws can only be tried in federal courts. So, what is the difference between state and federal criminal cases and why do these differences matter?

Criminal charges for various crimes will be grouped into different categories such as violations/infractions, misdemeanors or felonies.  Besides this, criminal charges are also grouped into either state or federal charges, which both contain very important distinctions. State leaders use their local police to regulate the conduct of its civilians, as the state will have the power to decide state criminal cases. Unlike state lawmakers, federal lawmakers can only pass laws where there is some federal or national interest involved, therefore there are fewer classes of federal crimes and fewer federal criminal cases in sum.

State and Federal Courts


State courts are established by states, and within state courts, local courts are established by cities, counties etc., and are usually included under the umbrella term “state courts.” On the other hand, federal courts are established under Article III of the United States Constitution, in an effort to resolve disputes that relate to the Constitution and laws created by Congress. 


State courts handle way more cases annually than federal courts do, because the cases that federal courts take on are often of national importance (Think: the court cases that stand out to you are usually big Supreme Court cases, if the parties are not famous, of course). State courts will also interact more with civilians than federal courts will. To put this into perspective, there are about 30,000,000 cases filed in state court per year, and about 1,000,000 cases filed in federal court per year. 


Due to the wide variation in the number of cases heard in state versus federal courts, the schedules of these courts will also vary. For this reason, many state judges will hear more than one case in a single hearing.  This does not occur in federal courts. Schedules also differ because prosecutors in state courts will usually work toward a much faster trial process, due to the large number of cases they are assigned to. 


One of the biggest differences between state and federal criminal cases lie within each court’s jurisdiction. Generally speaking, jurisdiction makes the distinctions between which cases a court is able to hear. State courts have broad jurisdiction, where federal courts are only prohibited to hear cases that are against the United States, cases involving certain federal laws, and cases that have a “federal interest.” Federal courts will have jurisdiction over the following crimes: 

  • A crime that takes place on federal land or involves federal officers; 
  • A crime involving fraud, deception, or misrepresentation on the federal government or one of its agencies;
  • A crime where the defendant or the criminal act crosses state lines;
  • Immigration and customs violations.

Being that federal courts have jurisdiction over the above-mentioned crimes, this means that federal prosecutors only have the power to charge an individual with these crimes. Aside from that, state and federal prosecutors are able to charge defendants for many of the same types of crimes.

Moving from State Court to Federal Court

In some instances, a case may be moved from state court to federal court. This usually will occur based upon the amount of money involved; the amount/type of drugs involved; a fraudulent case on such a broad scale; and/or the level of harm that the government is alleging. Because there are some acts that are prohibited under both federal and state laws, prosecutors may have some flexibility on whether or not to bring forth an action in state or federal court. 

The Defense Cannot Move a State Case

Even though the prosecutor has discretion on where to bring forth charges, this does not mean that the defense has the same discretion. The defense cannot move a case from state to federal court.  The prosecutor may do so based upon the types of investigators on the case, or the size of the case. Other times, federal prosecutors may become interested in the case for a variety of reasons (i.e., who the defendant(s) is). If this is the case, then the federal prosecutor may ask the state court to dismiss the charges brought against the defendant so that a federal court can bring forth charges instead.

Similarly, some cases that are handled by federal law enforcement agents are sometimes prosecuted in state criminal court, rather than in federal criminal court. This usually happens when the federal prosecutors determine that the matter is better suited for state court. This can happen for a number of reasons, including:

  • strength of evidence,
  • lack of federal resources,
  • determination that a state prosecution will lead to a better result.

Important Roles


Federal prosecutors are known as Assistant United States Attorneys, or AUSAs. In order to practice before a federal court, AUSAs must be admitted first. These prosecutors will generally play a more significant role in the cases they are working, in regard to investigators and screenings.  Also, once they file charges, this usually signifies that they believe that a case is worth prosecuting. State prosecutors will usually evaluate cases after an individual has already been arrested and charged. The admissions process for federal prosecutors in comparison to state prosecutors is tougher, because of their level of work, and the prestige and importance that go into federal cases. However, many state prosecutors are still just as talented as federal prosecutors. 

Defense Attorneys

As for defense attorneys, in order to try a case in federal court, an attorney must be admitted to the particular federal court where their defendant is being charged.  This means that not all criminal attorneys will practice in federal courts. 


Federal judges are very important and highly recognizable.  Due to these high expectations, their caseloads are significantly smaller than those of state court judges. In federal courts, individuals can appear before a federal magistrate judge before appearing before a federal district judge. Magistrate judges will usually hear a case after an arrest, or in response to a motion. They do not have the same or full range of power that federal district judges possess.  District judges are appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and will serve as judge for life.  They will hear both civil and criminal cases.  In contrast, state judges are usually elected or appointed by the governor for a specified number of years. 

Specific Difference Between State and Federal Criminal Cases

The types of parties involved in state versus federal courts are found below:

  • Investigators: State- Local and state police; Federal- FBI, DEA.
  • Prosecutors: State- Prosecuting Attorney; Federal- U.S. Attorneys.
  • Judges: State- Appointed by the Governor (subject to election); Federal- Appointed for life by the President (confirmed by U.S. Senate).


As you may guess, procedures are also different for state and federal criminal cases. There are differences in investigative procedures, as well as discovery and motion procedures.  Federal court procedures will always remain consistent, whereas state procedures will vary from state to state. This means that is it essential to retain a defense attorney who has a high level of knowledge of the federal court system for a federal case. 

Finally, cases in federal court will take longer to resolve, since there are fewer of them than in state court. 


The most questioned distinction between state and federal courts are the punishments imposed onto defendants. Those who are convicted of crimes in state courts will be faced with a wide range of punishment, including being incarcerated in a state prison. Those who are sent to prison in a federal court will go to a federal prison, as opposed to a state prison. However, some convicted individuals in federal court may be subjected to probation and/or fines. 

Sentencing Guidelines

If an individual is convicted in a federal court, they will be faced with federal sentencing guidelines. Federal sentencing guidelines are used to establish consistent sentencing practices across the same crimes. These may include mandatory minimums, and enhancements. These sentencing guidelines have been highly criticized for their level of harshness and for the typical long sentences that may result. Many scholars believe that this is a significant factor as to why federal courts have higher conviction rates.  Finally, there is no such thing as “parole,” in federal courts as there is within state courts. Often times, those who are convicted of a crime and sent to federal prison will serve about 85% of their sentence.  

Understanding the type of case being brought forth against you (a federal criminal case or a state criminal case), is imperative to preparing for what lies ahead and for who you should obtain as your attorney.

Contact Us for Further Assistance

If you are a loved one has been charged with a state OR federal crime, please do not hesitate to reach out and schedule an initial consultation, as we are admitted to and highly experienced in the state courts of New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and to federal courts. 

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  1. […] it is likely that they broke a law. If so, they will be faced with a criminal case against the state government or federal government. If this wrongdoing was aimed toward another individual, then they will also be faced with a civil […]