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The Differences Between Federal and State Criminal Cases

The American legal system operates in a dual court structure, with both state and federal courts handling criminal cases. While these systems share core functions, they differ in several fundamental ways, relating to the nature of the crime, potential consequences and investigative processes.

State crimes violate the laws established by individual states and are prosecuted in state courts. These offenses typically involve actions that directly impact the residents within that state, such as the following:

  • Violent crimes — Murder, assault, robbery, and domestic violence
  • Property crimes — Theft, burglary, and vandalism
  • Public order offenses — Drug possession (in small quantities), disorderly conduct and public intoxication
  • Traffic violations — Speeding, reckless driving, and driving under the influence (DUI)

Federal crimes, on the other hand, stem from violations of laws established by the federal government. These offenses usually have a broader scope and impact, affecting individuals and communities across state lines. Some common examples include:

  • Organized crime — Activities pertaining to racketeering, money laundering and human trafficking
  • National security offenses — Espionage, terrorism and treason
  • White-collar crimes — Fraud, embezzlement and insider trading
  • Federal immigration offenses — Entering or remaining in the country illegally
  • Federal drug trafficking — Transporting or distributing controlled substances across state lines or involving large quantities

In certain situations, an act can violate both state and federal laws, leading to concurrent jurisdiction. This means both state and federal authorities have the legal power to pursue charges against the accused. In such cases, the authorities involved might choose to collaborate on the investigation and prosecution, or they might choose to pursue separate charges.

The agencies responsible for investigating state and federal crimes also differ. State and local law enforcement agencies, such as police departments and sheriff’s offices, primarily investigate state crimes. They are familiar with the local communities and equipped to handle these offenses efficiently.

Federal crimes are generally the province of specialized agencies, which possess broad resources and expertise to investigate — often collaborating across state lines. Chief examples are the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which investigates major crimes including terrorism, organized crime, and cybercrime; the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which focuses on drug trafficking and related offenses; and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which investigates financial crimes, including tax evasion and money laundering.

A criminal defense attorney experienced with the distinctions in the jurisdiction, offenses punishments and agencies involved in state and federal criminal cases can provide comprehensive advice and guidance.

If you are currently under investigation by state or federal authorities in Texas or are facing criminal charges, Tylden Shaeffer, Attorney at Law, P.C. in San Antonio is ready to help. Call me at (210) 227-1500 or contact me online immediately to schedule a free consultation. 

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