State vs. Federal Criminal Charges

Posted by Jarrett P. AmbeauDec 23, 20200 Comments

State versus federal charges the rules differ between state and federal charges with Louisiana flag and American flag

An Inside Look at Federal Crimes, Procedures, and Penalties

The difference between state and federal crimes is significant. While state and federal charges should not be treated lightly, accusations brought by the federal government are particularly terrifying. This is because the US government has powerful prosecutors and resources at its disposal and will relentlessly pursue the toughest penalties permissible by federal laws.

Therefore, a defendant facing federal charges should be prepared for what to expect throughout their criminal case, as their experience in the federal criminal justice system could be intimidating and confusing without an adequate understanding of the process. With this in mind, our Baton Rouge federal criminal defense attorneys explain some key distinctions between state and federal charges below to help you better understand your situation. If you have any questions about your federal charges, please contact us at (225) 330-7009!


Crimes become federal offenses when they interfere with federal or national interests. This includes unlawful acts that:

  • occur on federal land
  • involve federal officers
  • cross state lines
  • violate the US Constitution
  • violate US immigration and custom laws

Examples of federal crimes include white collar crimes such as fraud, certain drug trafficking offenses, internet sex crimes, and more. A majority of crimes violate state laws, however. That's why most criminal cases, such as murder, robbery, arson, and rape, are tried in state courts.


Another key distinction between state and federal crimes is the jurisdiction, or the power of a court to adjudicate cases and issue orders. State courts typically have jurisdiction over more criminal cases than federal courts, as the federal government is only interested in prosecuting a limited range of offenses that interfere with certain federal operations. Precisely, the federal courts have jurisdiction over:

  • Cases that raise a "federal question" involving the United States Government, the U.S. Constitution, or other federal laws
  • Cases involving “diversity of citizenship," which are disputes between two parties that are not from the same state or country, and where the claim meets a set dollar threshold for damages

Judicial Process

A federal criminal case begins with the US Attorney presenting evidence to a grand jury to determine if there is sufficient evidence to try a defendant. If a grand jury believes there is enough evidence to prosecute a defendant, then the case will continue in federal court. At an initial appearance, a judge will do the following:

  • advise the defendant of their charges
  • consider whether or not the defendant should be in jail until their trial
  • determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a crime

The next step is the arraignment, a type of court hearing in which a defendant will enter a plea to their charges. If the defendant pleads guilty, they may enter a plea bargain with the US Attorney or await their sentence from the judge.

If the defendant pleads not guilty to their charges, they will go to trial. Before the trial begins, their attorney may file pretrial motions such as a motion to suppress evidence that could violate the defendant's constitutional rights. At trial, a defendant may either be found guilty or not guilty. If they are found guilty, the judge will determine the defendant's sentence. If they are found not guilty, the defendant is released and cannot be charged again for the same offense in federal court.


In many cases, federal penalties are generally harsher than state penalties, carrying harsh mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, lengthy prison sentences altogether, and high fines and restitution payments in comparison to state-imposed fines. Please refer to the US Sentencing Commission guidelines for more information.

DISCLAIMER: The content above is for information purposes only and should not be treated as legal advice. The federal criminal process may differ on a case-by-case basis, which is why you should consult a lawyer before proceeding with your case. As such, our Baton Rouge federal crimes attorneys are just a phone call away. Call (225) 330-7009 to discuss your case with us.

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