drug criminal defense attorney

Who Decides If a Case Is Prosecuted at the State or Federal Level?

drug criminal defense attorneyEven if you have never before been arrested and charged with a crime, you likely know that a criminal prosecution can occur at the state level or at the federal level. Who decides, however, whether the state or the federal government will prosecute a defendant? If you are arrested by a state law enforcement officer does that mean the case will be prosecuted by the state? How and when do federal law enforcement authorities become involved in a criminal investigation? Although the answers to these questions can be rather complex, a drug criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby explains some basics with regard to state versus federal prosecutions.

The United States Criminal Justice System

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 as well as state and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. Because of the way our judicial system and government are structured, both the federal government and the state governments may enact and enforce laws; however, 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.

State vs. Federal Criminal Statutes and Prosecutions

Because both the state and federal governments may enact criminal statutes, a crime could violate both state and federal law. Drug crimes are a good example. Delivery or transporting of a controlled substance, for instance, is a violation of both federal law and the laws of the State of Tennessee. Numerous factors go into deciding whether a crime is prosecuted at the state or federal level; however, as a practical matter, certain crimes tend to fall under the purview of the federal judicial system while others are routinely prosecuted by state courts.

Among the crimes most often prosecuted by the federal government are drug trafficking offenses, organized crime, and financial crimes along with large scale frauds and crimes in which there is a special federal interest such as crimes against federal officials, and frauds against the United States.  There are also some crimes that can only be prosecuted by the federal government, such as customs offenses, offenses involving federal tax matters, and crimes of espionage and treason.

Conversely, there are also some crimes that are usually handled by the state judicial system. Among those are crimes against the person, such as murders and assaults, and many crimes against property, such as robberies and thefts. In addition, drug-related offenses that involve possession of a controlled substance are also typically prosecuted in state court.

Can Both the State and Federal Government Prosecute a Crime?

You have probably heard of the concept of “double jeopardy” which prevents a defendant from being prosecuted for the same crime twice. The double jeopardy prohibition is found in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which reads, in pertinent part, “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…” You might, understandably, take that to mean that you cannot be prosecuted by both the state and federal government for the same crime; however, you would be wrong. The Double Jeopardy Clause prevents multiple prosecutions by the same “sovereign.” Because the state and federal government are considered to be separate sovereigns, it is possible to be prosecuted in both state and federal court.

Contact a Tennessee Drug Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been arrested and charged with a criminal offense, either by the State of Tennessee or by the U.S. government, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee drug criminal defense attorney at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.


Dinah Michael