Did you know that you can be prosecuted by the federal government and the state government for the same crime? Though it’s rare, you should be aware of the differences between the charges, penalties, and procedures for federal vs. state crimes.

Generally, federal crimes incur harsher penalties and mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses. Further, the federal government has a lot more resources to prosecute crimes.

If you’ve been charged with a federal crime, it’s in your best interest to consult with an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

In this article, we discuss:

  • Federal vs. State Crimes
  • Why Federal Crimes Are Worse Than State Crimes
  • The Most Commonly Charged Federal Crimes, and
  • What to do if You’re Charged With a Federal Crime

Continue reading to learn more.

Federal vs. State Crimes Comparison 

 Federal CrimesState Crimes
Jurisdiction– Crimes that occur on federal land or are against federal officers  
– Crimes that cross state lines  
– Federal crimes involving fraud  
– Immigration & customs law violations  
– Most crimes that occur in the state
Prosecutor TitleAssistant U.S. AttorneyDistrict or State Attorney
JudgeFederal JudgesState Judges
Investigative BodiesFBI, DEA, ICE, or other federal agenciesLocal law enforcement, state police, or county sheriffs
Penalties– Penalties vary depending on the crime. Defendants are subject to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines
– Mandatory minimums  
– Federal Prison  
– Federal probation, supervised release, or parole
– Penalties vary depending on the crime. Generally lighter sentencing than federal crimes  
– State jail or prison  
– State probation, parole, or supervision
The Supreme Court Building

Federal vs. State Jurisdiction

Generally, federal criminal codes focus on crimes that are of national interest. Most other crimes fall under the state’s jurisdiction. That includes crimes like assault, murder, drug possession, theft, etc. However, the federal government can exercise its authority in limited circumstances.

State vs. Federal Prosecutions

State attorney generals and local prosecutors have limited resources and are typically unwilling to expend their entire budget on hard-to-win cases. On the other hand, the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s office will spare no expense when investigating and prosecuting potential federal crimes.

As a result, when the federal government finally brings charges against a defendant, they usually have months or even years of investigative work and evidence on their side.

State vs. Federal Judges

State judges are elected. Federal judges are appointed for life. That means that state judges may be more sensitive to issues that incur public outcry, whereas federal judges may be more likely to walk “party lines” based on who appointed them.

The differences are mostly negligible regarding the outcome of a criminal case. However, it could play a role when deciding on a jury trial vs. bench trial.

State vs. Federal Criminal Penalties

Suppose defendant A and defendant B commit the same crime, but defendant B committed the crime on federal property. In that case, defendant B can generally expect a longer prison sentence, greater time served before release and mandatory minimum sentences based on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

Why Are Federal Crimes Worse Than State Crimes

Per the information in the table above, federal crimes are typically penalized more harshly than state crimes. That means longer prison sentences, larger fines, and additional penalties. However, the severity of punishment depends on the crime committed, the defendant’s criminal history, and many other factors.

Common Federal Crimes

Federal charges largely involve crimes that are against the U.S. or considered of national interest. With that in mind, there are countless federal crimes outlined in the U.S. criminal codes. However, the most commonly charged federal crimes include:

What To Do If You’re Charged With a Federal Crime

If you’re facing federal criminal charges (potentially state charges as well), you need to move quickly to protect your rights. Listed below are some of the first steps you should take after being charged with a federal crime.

  1. Research potential federal criminal defense lawyers
  1. Schedule multiple consultations until you find the attorney that fits you best
  1. Learn more about the federal charges against you
  1. Familiarize yourself with federal criminal laws
  1. Understand the differences between state charges and federal charges (if applicable)
  1. Know the consequences of going to trial vs. accepting a plea deal
  1. Allow your attorney to take the lead

It’s important to note that state and federal criminal procedures, laws, and possible outcomes are different.

That means that it’s in your best interest to work with an attorney who has verifiable experience handling federal criminal cases. Otherwise, your lawyer may be at a disadvantage when going up against seasoned federal prosecutors.


Michael Humphreys has spent more than 25 years with the United States Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor, including approximately 10 years in Washington, D.C., handling cases all over the United States. Up until the end of 2018, he was a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas. An attorney with a very broad range of criminal and civil experience, Michael is no stranger to the courtroom having been involved with high-stakes federal litigation. If you need powerhouse lawyers for your federal case, get Michael on your side. Michael handles federal criminal and civil matters across the United States.