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State v. federal cases: What is the difference?

On Behalf of | Mar 4, 2022 | Criminal Defense

The evening news frequently covers stories about individuals facing criminal charges. They may report that state police arrested them on drug trafficking charges, and also note that the individual could face federal charges.

There is a distinction between state and federal cases, and it is important to understand the real differences between them.

4 critical differences

The differences between state and federal criminal cases can be significant at every step of the process. Some of the biggest differences to note include:

  • The charges: Since state and federal laws often differ, so do the charges for violating those laws. Consider marijuana possession charges, for example. Many states – excluding North Carolina – have legalized marijuana use and possession. However, it is still illegal at the federal level. Regardless, the charges still vary considerably from the state to the federal level. In North Carolina, possessing one ounce of marijuana could result in misdemeanor charges, up to 45 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. On the federal level, possession of any amount of marijuana could result in misdemeanor charges, up to one year in prison and a fine of $1,000.
  • The investigation: State bureaus, such as state agents or police officers investigate cases at the state level. Meanwhile, federal bureaus, such as the FBI and others, investigate federal crimes.
  • The prosecution: In a federal case, a U.S. assistant attorney will prosecute the case on behalf of the government. In a state case, it is usually a district or city attorney who does this.
  • The penalties: Generally, federal crimes are often considered more serious. Therefore, they often have more severe penalties, with longer prison sentences – often without parole – and harsher fines. For example, wire fraud is a federal offense that could result in up to 20 years in prison.

The differences in the process of criminal cases generally boil down to the differences in state and federal laws.

Note: You can face both state and federal charges

It is critical to note that even though there are differences between state and federal charges and cases, some situations could result in an individual facing charges at both levels. Drug crimes and white-collar crimes often fall into this category, as they frequently violate both state and federal laws.

Double jeopardy rules prevent someone from facing trial more than once for the same offense. However, these rules do not apply in state and federal matters, since state governments and the federal government are separate bodies.