In the United States, criminal charges can be brought by different levels of government, to include the Federal Government or the State government. Whether a person is charged at the State or Federal level depends upon a variety of factors.
In the American legal system, the Federal Government is one of limited powers, which means that for there to be a Federal criminal charge, there must be some authority in the United States Constitution to support that charge. That means that many things that a State can criminal cannot be criminalized by the Federal Government. For example, some kinds of murder are Federal crimes, such as a murder committed on Federal land, certain acts of terrorism, etc. However, a person murdering their spouse is almost never a Federal crime. On the other hand, robbing a convenience store is the Federal crime of Robbery Interfering with Interstate Commerce. The reason that the Federal Government can criminalize robber that affects interstate commerce is due to the Commerce Clause in the Constitution, which gives the Federal Government the authority to regulate interstate commerce (to include robbery that harms interstate commerce, even when the robbery takes place in just one State).
Many people think of Federal charges as more serious than State charges, and that can be true in many cases. Generally speaking, the penalty for a conviction in Federal court will be more severe than a similar conviction in State court. That can be particularly true for gun and drug cases, when one compares the sentences in Federal Court against the sentences for similar crimes in the State courts of Iowa and Illinois. In general, there is also a common belief that Federal prosecutors are better at their jobs than State prosecutors, due to their generally higher salaries and the fact that there is more competition for Federal prosecutor jobs than there is for State prosecutor jobs. It is certainly true that the Federal government has more resources than any State government, and as a result can afford to expend more resources upon the investigation and prosecution of a criminal case. The conviction rate in Federal Court is, statistically, higher than in most State courts.
However, the Federal court system is not one that should be seen as intimidating. A person accused of a Federal offense is presumed innocent, just as someone who is charged with a State offense. The Bill of Rights applies to Federal Cases, just as it applies to State cases. A conviction in Federal Court requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, just as it does in State Court. Attorneys can challenge the admissibility of evidence and confessions, call witnesses, and otherwise defend their client in Federal Court just as can be done in State court.
Indeed, there are situations where Federal charges can actually be improvement in the situation that a defendant faces. Often, a person will be charged by the State, and then some number of days or months later, the Federal government will file its own charges. That is because Federal prosecutors usually seek a Grand Jury indictment, which takes longer than the filing of Information that State prosecutors use to begin a criminal case. Generally, the State will then dismiss its charges, and the case will proceed in Federal court. I have had clients whose cases followed that pattern end up with a better outcome due to the Federal charges being brought. For example, I have had clients who were denied release on bond by the State court end up being released by the Federal court, as the bond standards in Federal court can actually be more favorable under certain circumstances. In other cases, I have had clients whose State cases would have actually carried a longer prison term be Federally charged, resulting in a less serious case proceeding due to the Federal Government’s decision to file charges.
The Federal court system is one where the stakes can be higher, but that simply means that there is more work to be done to fight the case – which is something that I find to be rewarding as a defense attorney who handles Federal cases in Iowa and Illinois. Those who are facing Federal charges should keep the fact that Federal cases can be won in mind, and not despair. It should go without saying that a person who is facing a Federal case is well advised to seek an attorney at once, as handling the case properly is of the highest importance.
Tags for this legal blog article: Federal Criminal Law