Key Differences Between Federal and State Criminal Charges

federal crime

The laws in the United States are complex, particularly when differentiating between federal and state criminal charges. Understanding these differences is crucial for anyone navigating the criminal justice system. 


An interesting statistic to note is that federal convictions have a higher rate of resulting in prison sentences compared to state convictions. This underscores the importance of a skilled attorney in federal cases to navigate the court and sentencing guidelines in federal criminal law.


With its profound expertise in federal criminal defense, Kolsrud Law Offices provides valuable guidance into the distinct characteristics of federal and state prosecutions and how they can impact a defendant's case. If you are facing a federal criminal charge in Arizona, don't hesitate to contact us to schedule a free consultation. 

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Jurisdiction and Authority for Criminal Charges

Federal and state criminal charges are distinguished primarily by the jurisdiction under which they are filed.


Federal offenses involve laws passed by the U.S. Congress and are prosecuted by federal prosecutors in federal courts.


These often relate to crimes that cross state lines, involve federal property, or contravene U.S. federal laws.


On the other hand, state criminal charges pertain to violations of state statutes and are prosecuted in state courts.


They typically involve crimes committed within a state's borders and include a wide range of offenses, from theft to murder.


  • Federal Jurisdiction: Governed by 18 USC § 3231, federal district courts have original jurisdiction over all offenses against federal law.
  • State Jurisdiction: State courts handle violations of state statutes and have an expansive remit covering most criminal cases.
Federal criminal charges

Legal Standards and Sentencing

Differences in legal standards and sentencing are significant between state and federal systems.  


Federal courts typically adhere to more stringent procedures and maintain higher sentencing guidelines than state courts. This strictness can lead to more severe penalties for federal offenses than for corresponding state offenses.



One illustrative example involves the sentencing disparities between state and federal murder charges.


In a state court, a murder charge can vary significantly based on the circumstances, degree, and the state's specific laws. For instance, in Arizona, a conviction for first-degree murder (a state charge) could result in life imprisonment or the death penalty, depending on the case's specifics, including aggravating and mitigating factors.


Conversely, federal murder charges, such as those applied in cases of murder related to drug trafficking or resulting from acts of terrorism, are governed by federal statutes.


Under federal law, murder charges can lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty, especially if the murder involves specific federal elements like killing a federal officer or witness tampering leading to murder.


The federal system's mandatory minimum sentences and the lack of parole in the federal system can make federal sentences more severe and less flexible than those at the state level.


Moreover, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide a structured sentencing framework that federal judges must consider. These guidelines consider the nature of the crime and the defendant's criminal history, potentially leading to lengthy sentences even for first-time offenders, which contrasts with some state systems where judges may have more discretion.


For example, if someone is convicted of a federal hate crime resulting in death, they typically face life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.


In contrast, under state law, the same individual might face different penalties based on the state's sentencing laws, judicial discretion, and the possibility of parole.


Additionally, federal sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentences, and the influence of the Federal Sentencing Commission play crucial roles in determining sentences in federal cases.


This structure provides less flexibility than many state sentencing structures, where judges might have more leeway to consider the circumstances and background of the defendant.


The stark contrast between federal and state sentencing guidelines underscores the importance of understanding which jurisdiction a case falls under and the potential implications for the accused.


This complexity highlights the critical need for skilled legal representation in navigating the nuances of federal and state criminal charges.

Dual Sovereignty Doctrine

The Dual Sovereignty Doctrine is a critical legal principle distinguishing federal and state criminal processes.


This doctrine allows successive federal and state prosecutions for the same acts without violating double jeopardy protections.


Hypothetical Example

Let's consider a hypothetical scenario to illustrate this doctrine in action:


Imagine a person, John Doe, involved in a large-scale drug operation. This operation crosses state lines, involving the distribution of illegal substances from Arizona to Nevada. Due to the interstate nature of the crime, federal authorities charge John with federal drug trafficking, leading to his prosecution in federal court.


Simultaneously, the state of Arizona, where some of the illegal activities took place, decides to press charges against John for related crimes under state drug laws.


Despite already facing federal charges for the same underlying actions, the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine allows Arizona to pursue its separate state charges against John.


This scenario exemplifies the impact of the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine, where John faces legal battles on two fronts: in federal court for violating federal laws and in state court for breaching Arizona's drug statutes.


The doctrine underscores the independence of federal and state legal systems, permitting both to enforce their laws even when they pertain to the same incidents.


Case Studies

  • United States v. Tezak: This case exemplifies the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine, showing that federal and state governments can prosecute the same individual for the same actions without infringing on double jeopardy rights. 
  • United States v. Duncan: Demonstrates differences in federal versus state charges and sentencing, even among co-defendants involved in the same criminal incident. 
  • United States v. Scholz: Highlights the application of the Blockburger "same offense" test, showcasing how charges with different elements can lead to successive state and federal prosecutions. 
  • United States v. Ayala-Bello: Reflects on federal prosecution policies, illustrating how they can legally differentiate between citizens and non-citizens under certain conditions. 
  • Lacara v. Islip: Offers perspective on how certain charges are treated differently at the federal and state levels, impacting the legal strategies and outcomes in criminal defense cases. 
federal sentencing

Exclusive Federal Crimes: Offenses Governed Solely by Federal Law

Exclusively, federal crimes typically involve activities that cross state lines or affect federal government operations, making them beyond the jurisdiction of individual states.


Examples of such crimes include immigration violations, such as illegal border crossing or smuggling non-citizens into the United States, which directly challenge federal immigration laws.


Counterfeiting U.S. currency is another crime solely under federal purview, as it threatens the integrity of the nation's monetary system.


Mail and wire fraud are also considered federal crimes because they use interstate communication facilities or the U.S. Postal Service to commit fraudulent acts.


Other exclusive federal offenses include espionage and treason, which directly endanger national security, and crimes committed on federal property, such as national parks or military bases.


Tax evasion, particularly of federal taxes, is also exclusively a federal crime, reflecting the government's need to protect its revenue systems.


These crimes are distinctively federal because they involve interests, infrastructure, or issues that span beyond individual states, necessitating a unified, national legal response.

Free Consultation With A Federal Defense Attorney

Navigating federal and state crime complexities requires deep legal knowledge and experience. With its specialized focus on federal criminal defense, Kolsrud Law Offices stands ready to assist those facing such challenges. Understanding these distinctions can significantly impact a case's defense strategy and outcome.


Contact the Kolsrud Law Offices today if you have been charged with a federal crime. We remain committed to providing comprehensive defense strategies and insightful legal counsel for those facing federal charges, ensuring informed and effective representation in the complex arena of federal criminal law.

An award-winning criminal defense attorney Since 2006

Why Choose Josh Kolsrud

With over 100 trials to his name, and years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor, Josh understands the law, the legal process, and your rights. Josh is also committed to representing every client with utmost integrity and dedication



Josh has prosecuted major crimes on the state and federal level, led a successful anti-human sex trafficking operation that saved lives, and argued before countless juries and justices for his clients



Josh is an expert in both Arizona and federal criminal law, and is ready to put that expertise to work for you.



As a prosecutor, Josh saw far too many defendants lose their livelihood due to poor representation. Josh will always give every client his complete attention and effort

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