State vs Federal Charges What’s the Difference?

Most criminal prosecutions are handled in state courts. But both the state and federal governments can bring charges against you. Below are critical differences between state and federal charges and which is most likely to be brought based upon the circumstances.

Generally, for the crime to be handled in federal court, there must be a legal basis for federal oversight. Federal jurisdiction can be stated in the federal statute. Or it could be elucidated by Congress in the law. Many criminal statutes at the federal level fall under the Commerce Clause; this gives Congress the power to regulate all activities that affect interstate commerce.

#1 Crime Occurs in One State

If your alleged crime happened in a single state, it will usually be handled as a state charge. This is almost always the case unless it is specifically noted as a federal crime. Federal crimes that can occur within state lines can include:

  • IRS violations
  • Kidnapping
  • Damaging or destroying postal boxes
  • Drug trafficking
  • Federal sex crimes
  • Wire or mail fraud

Although state charges often come with crimes that occur in a single state, the Supremacy Clause in the US Constitution states federal law always has greater power than state laws. Federal agencies that can get involved in a state case include the FBI, IRS, DEA or ATF.

Other examples of federal crimes are:

  • Immigration crimes
  • Crimes with weapons
  • Organized crime, including RICO
  • White collar crime
  • Computer fraud crime

Federal white collar crimes may be committed if a false statement is made via the mail, or if a false statement was made that caused money to be transferred by wire. It also should be remember if the crime was committed on federal property, it will generally be prosecuted as a federal crime. Crimes that occur in geographic locations such as US parks, federal courthouses, federal prisons, Washington DC and Native American reservations, would be charged by federal courts.

Some of the most common crimes that are charged at the state level are:

  • Assault and battery
  • Stalking
  • Robbery
  • Homicide
  • Sexualy battery

#2 State Crimes Charged No Matter the Severity

Other than the above exceptions, if the crime occurs in one state, no matter how severe the crime was, you would still be charged with a state crime. Every state, including Massachusetts, has many provisions for prosecuting and charging crimes that are in violation of state laws. These can range from simple traffic matters to serious charges such as murder, sex crimes and drug charges.

In Massachusetts, murder is the most serious felony crime. Less serious felony crimes that are generally handled by a state charge are rape, assault, batter, embezzlement and food stamp trafficking. When it comes to embezzlement, this is a state charge that can carry six months to 2.5 years in jail if the property is worth less than $250.

#3 How Evidence Is Presented and Disclosed

When you are charged with a state crime, you may expect there will not be as many folders of evidence in discovery. There could be a few hundred pages of evidence. But federal charges usually feature a large scope of evidence from several federal agencies. This evidence can include video, wiretapping evidence, federal agency reports and plenty of witnesses. The reason for this is that the scope of a state charge is often on one area, but a federal charge can be broader. It can include years of monitoring and evidence built against you.

Federal court proceedings also have different guidelines than state court proceedings. They usually involve detailed testimony and evidence presentation from one of the federal agencies, such as FBI, IRS or DEA. It is important for the defendant to be represented by a good federal criminal attorney who knows they types of evidence that can be brought in federal cases. These skilled attorneys know how to take all of the evidence into advisement while working with the accused to devise the best legal strategy to obtain the best result.

#4 Penalties for Federal Charges

Penalties for a federal charge is usually more severe. Federal charge cases are handled in federal courts. Federal judges must use Federal Sentencing Guidelines to determine what the penalty is for your crime. Federal judges do not have much in the way of discretion to go outside those guidelines. State courts often have sentences guided by state legislation and laws. These can include minimum and maximum sentencing penalties. They allow the judge to determine if the crime can be fit into a lower type of sentence, such as probation, or if a maximum sentence is required.

The facilities where you serve your time are different, too. People who are sentenced at the federal level go to federal prison. Those who are serving for a state crime will go to a state prison. Federal prisons often have more non-violent, white collar criminals, while state prisons have more people convicted of violent crimes.

#5 Higher Conviction Rate for Federal Crimes

The federal government possesses large financial resources to ensure that if you are indicted, you are usually convicted. The conviction rate in federal courts is believed to be more than 90%, which conviction rates is state courts are in the 50% to 60% range.


Note that federal and state laws may actually overlap in some criminal prosecutions, especially if the federal statute is relying on the Commerce Clause; this is called concurrent jurisdiction and can have severe consequences in some cases. Because of this concept of concurrent jurisdiction, federal and state statutes are actually considered separate offenses. So even if you are acquitted on the federal charge, the state could still file charges against you.

Facing a State or Federal Charge?

If you are facing a state or federal charge, you would be advised to seek solid criminal defense representation immediately. Boston Mass criminal attorney Geoffrey Nathan will be your fierce legal advocate no matter which state or federal charge you face in Massachusetts or elsewhere.  For a criminal defense legal consultation, please contact him at (617) 472-5775.


Need Criminal Defense Help?

For a Federal or Criminal Consultation, call me today at 617-472-5775 or use the form below for your consultation. I will offer you expert help and answer any specific questions you have about your case. I handle criminal defense cases throughout all areas of Massachusetts including Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Springfield, Quincy, Lowell, Worcester, Fall River and national for Federal matters.

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