What is the Difference Between a Federal Crime and a State Crime?

Dealing with any criminal charge can be a daunting task. This is especially true when facing Federal criminal charges because most people feel more frightened and intimidated when the criminal charges are brought in the Federal courts as opposed to the State courts.  If you are facing Federal charges you may wonder why you are not in State court. Or, in the worst-case scenario, you may wonder why you are being prosecuted in both courts. There are many reasons for this decision, and these are discussed below.

Being Prosecuted in Both State and Federal Court

To begin with, all courts handling criminal cases are in either the Federal or the State court system, but the criminal cases they are empowered to hear, also called their “jurisdiction” differs significantly. Federal court judges have the power to preside over matters involving the U.S. Constitution and over all Federal Laws, which are those passed by the U.S. Congress. State court judges are empowered to preside over cases involving the State Constitution, and over all State laws, meaning those passed by a State or Municipal governing body. State courts can therefore preside over traffic tickets and state misdemeanor and felony cases. The court of primary jurisdiction in the Federal system is called the “district court” whereas the court of primary jurisdiction in the State system is the circuit court.  In the State system, the district court is a lower court, below the circuit court, and is the place all state criminal charges begin.  State felonies must be handled in the circuit court however.

Most crimes are covered by both State and Federal laws, and this is part of what makes things confusing, especially since in somewhat rare cases, people can be charged in both federal and state courts for crimes that occurred in the same incident. Although state, county, and municipal prosecutors cannot prosecute federal crimes in state courts, there is a federal statute that allows federal prosecutors to prosecute state crimes in federal court if part of a case that also involves federal charges. In any case, there are some key differences to how state charges are authorized in Michigan in comparison to how federal charges are authorized. These differences are important for a federal criminal defense attorney to understand to potentially challenge how charges are brought.

How Criminal Cases Begin in State Courts

Crimes under state and local law can be brought a couple different ways. Many misdemeanor charges are authorized by an officer who witnesses a crime taking place, makes an arrest, and issues a ticket that gets filed with a state district court. For example, an officer sees someone driving over the speed limit, pulls them over, smells alcohol, and issues a breath test that reveals the person drank alcohol before driving. The officer would then issue a ticket for DUI, book the person in jail, and forward the ticket to the local district court. The prosecutor receives the police report and all evidence related to the incident and takes the case from there.

Most felonies in Michigan are authorized by a complaint and warrant. The complaint and warrant is also the charging process for misdemeanors that a police offers does not personally witness. A complaint is a form that describes the person to be charged and what they did that is criminal. The complaint is then sworn to, usually by a police officer, in front of a judge or magistrate. If the judge agrees that there is probable cause, the charges are then authorized, and the police will execute the warrant by making an arrest.

How Criminal Cases Begin in the Federal Courts

Federal law allows charges to be brought a few different ways, the most common of which would be through a grand jury indictment. In this process, a federal prosecutor would review reports from federal law enforcement agencies. If the prosecutor believes there is probable cause that a federal crime was committed, the prosecutor will present this information to a grand jury. A grand jury is a group of citizens that review information and evidence and decide whether there is probable cause that a crime was committed. If the grand jury finds probable cause, a true bill is issued, and the defendant can be arrested.

Federal charges can also be authorized by a complaint and warrant. This is like the state court process. The complaint alleges a violation of federal law. If the judge finds probable cause in the complaint, the charges and warrant can be authorized.

A third way federal charges can be brought is through an arraignment on the information. This method is used when there is overwhelming evidence of a crime. An arraignment on the information does not require a grand jury indictment. The defendant knows and agrees to be arraigned on this basis, essentially waiving the grand jury process. This can be different from the grand jury process in which a defendant usually does not know about the grand jury indictment until it is completed, and they are arrested. Many times, when there is an arraignment on the information, the defendant pleads guilty at the arraignment or there is a very brief plea negotiation period before a guilty plea is entered.

Which is More Serious; State or Federal Criminal Charges

Even though state criminal charges should not be taken lightly by any means, federal charges are usually much more serious because of hefty minimum sentences in federal prison compared to similar state charges that usually do not have a mandatory minimum. For example, in cases involving the distribution of child pornography, the mandatory minimum sentence is 5 years. When manufacturing child pornography is involved, the minimum mandatory sentence is a whopping 15 years.

How to Find a Lawyer for a Federal Criminal Charge

If you are facing a federal criminal charge in Michigan, the experienced federal criminal defense attorneys at the Barone Defense Firm can help. The firm not only possesses over 100 years of combined criminal law experience, including the defense of Federal Crimes, we also have on staff a Mr. Keith Corbett.  Now on the defense side, Mr. Corbett previously spent over 34 years an “AUSA,” (assistant United States Attorney), and for much of that 34 years, Mr. Corbett was the head of the organized crime unit.  When facing a federal prosecutor this kind of experience could make a huge difference in the outcome of your case.  Call us today for your free no obligation case review.

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