federal and state crime

What Is the Difference between a Federal and State Crime?

federal and state crimeBeing arrested and charged with a criminal offense is typically a frightening experience. If you recently went through the arrest process, it may not have mattered to you at the time whether you were being charged with a state or federal crime.  It does matter though because there are significant differences between how state and federal crimes are charged, prosecuted, and punished if convicted. Because those differences do matter, a Tennessee criminal defense attorney explains the difference between a federal and state crime.

The American Federalist System – An Overview

The United States operates under what is referred to as a federalist system of government. That means that we have a strong central government (the federal government) along with numerous smaller, semi-autonomous governments (the individual state governments). Consequently, we also have a federal judicial system and individual state judicial systems. It also means that both the federal government and the state governments may enact and enforce laws. The U.S. Constitution serves as the highest law in the land. Neither the federal government nor a state government may enact a law that violates the U.S. Constitution. Each state also has its own Constitution. Laws enacted by that state alone may not violate that constitution. For example, a Tennessee law may not violate the U.S. Constitution nor the Constitution of the State of Tennessee; however, it might violate Georgia’s constitution.

State vs. Federal Laws

Most federal criminal laws can be found in Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Most criminal laws for the State of Tennessee can be found in Title 39 of the Tennessee Code. An offense can be – and often is – prohibited by both federal and state law. Manufacturing or distributing a controlled substance, for instance, is a violation of both federal law and the laws of the State of Tennessee. That means that many offenses could be prosecuted by the federal government, the state government, or both. Yes, it is possible to be prosecuted at both the federal and the state level. Known as “dual sovereignty,” the ability to be prosecuted in both state and federal court does not violate your Constitutional right against double jeopardy.

State vs. Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

As you probably already know, we also have both state and federal law enforcement agencies that investigate crimes in the U.S. At the federal level, agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are examples of law enforcement agencies that investigate different types of crimes. Within the State of Tennessee, the State Patrol along with county sheriff agencies and local police departments investigate allegations of criminal activity.

State vs. Federal Courts

Not surprisingly, federal crimes are prosecuted in federal courts and state crimes are prosecuted in state courts. Both the federal and state courts systems have similar systems, with trial level courts that handle original trials, appellate courts that hear appeals from the trial courts, and a high court that is the ultimate stop in the appellate process.  In federal court, the federal government is represented by U.S. attorneys from the Department of Justice. In state court, the state is represented by the prosecuting attorney’s office for the county where the crime occurred. As a defendant, you have the same Constitutional rights in state court as in federal court, including the right to an attorney, the right to bail, and the right to a trial by jury. There are some procedural differences between a state and a federal prosecution; however, they are substantially the same. Federal court is, however, frequently more formal than state court.

State vs. Federal Sentencing

If you are convicted of a crime in federal court the Federal Sentencing Guidelines will be used to determine your sentence. If convicted of a crime in state court, your sentence may be determined using a state level equivalent. Another difference between state and federal court sentencing can be found in the “good time” credit a prisoner receives. Although this is subject to change, most state prison systems give a prisoner considerably more good time credit than the federal system does.

Contact a Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have additional questions or concerns about state and/or federal crimes, consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Stan Bennett