The differences between state and federal criminal courts are both obvious and subtle. Obvious differences include funding and breadth with a state criminal court being responsible for a relatively small geographic area while a federal district court may cover an entire state. Subtle differences include the types of crimes the two have jurisdiction to hear, the guidelines that each uses to mete out sentences, and the length or severity of those sentences. Here’s a small taste of the different paths.
If all politics is local, then the same holds true (mostly) for crime when it comes to the court in which those crimes will be tried. This is perhaps the most fundamental difference between state and federal criminal court. While it may seem as if there is a great deal of overlap between federal and state crimes, the opposite is actually the case. Most crimes are state crimes – robbery, murder, rape, etc. Federal crimes usually involve those that cross state lines such as drug trafficking or some cases of prostitution. Other federal crimes are only triggered when federal interests are harmed such as robbing a bank where there are federal deposits (basically almost all banks) or using the U.S. mail to defraud investors or an arson involved federal holdings. Of course, evasion of federal income taxes or a myriad of other federal tax laws may only be prosecuted in federal court. This is not to say that there are not federal statutes dealing with homicide or even assault. These statutes do exist and are prosecuted, but for crimes that meet a more narrow criteria than is required in state court. Sometimes the same criminal act could be prosecuted in both state and federal court. As an example, possession of cocaine could be prosecuted in federal and state court because possession of that drug is usually a crime in both jurisdictions.
Federal criminal prosecutions may seem ubiquitous and common and part of this is likely due to the fact that while there are a slightly limited amount of enumerated federal crimes, many crimes meet the minimum standards to qualify for a federal crime. For example, someone who keeps a boat on property leased by the federal government and then sets fire to the boat while it is on federal property and burns the federal property in the process can face federal arson charges.
Punishments also vary from state-to-state and in federal courts. The arsonist in the prior example may face up to 25 years for the federal charge but in Florida state court could face anywhere from 15 years to life in prison, depending upon the value of the property and whether anyone is injured in the fire. Part of the reason for the varying punishments tracks directly back to the fact that in most cases, the federal criminal statute covers a specific situation or set of facts whereas the state statute acts as a catch-all for all forms of the particular crime. Moreover, federal sentences can be served in any number of federal prisons around the country, while state sentences are usually served in the state of the conviction.
Another area in which state and federal criminal courts differ is in the guidelines for imposing sentences on convicted criminals. Federal sentencing guidelines are a uniform set of guidelines that apply to convicted defendants in federal courts across the entire country. They appear in a table form based upon the offense level and the criminal history category. Florida uses a Criminal Punishment Code which uses a combination of structured and unstructured guidelines and a point system to determine sentences.
Whether you are facing criminal charges in federal or state court, consider contacting the attorneys at Weisberg Kainen Mark to advise you of your rights and help get you through the process.