Being charged with a federal crime is the most severe a citizen can be charged with. In order to require a federal trial, an offender must be charged of breaking a law passed by Congress. These include anything from interstate laws — like kidnapping across state lines — to white collar crimes like tax fraud. Some crimes, like bank robbery, may fall under both federal and state jurisdiction, and may be tried in either court.

These sorts of cases tend to be much longer than local or state cases, and require years of experience for proper representation. There is a lot to know about federal crime defense, including how it is different from defense for crimes on a more local level.

Defining Jurisdiction

Think of the most heinous crimes you can. Even something like murder is typically dealt with on the state level. The exception to that rule is if state lines are crossed while the crime is being committed. This is because the federal courts typically only get involved if national interest is at stake. However, there are quite a few areas that fall into this jurisdiction. These include:


  • Direct federal involvement. If you commit a crime on federal land, such as a national park or military base, it is considered a federal crime. In addition, if you commit a crime involving a federal officer, such as assault, you’ll be in front of a federal judge.
  • Crossing state lines, physically or otherwise. As mentioned above, crossing state lines while committing a crime, like interstate kidnapping, is a federal offense. But even virtually crossing those lines, such as stealing an identity in another state, is also a federal crime.
  • Customs and immigration violations. This includes anything from helping someone enter the country illegally to human trafficking.


Understanding Court Procedure

When you go to the state or local court to face trial, you will stand in front of a judge that has been voted on by citizens of the given jurisdiction. Some states appoint judges, but those seats are up to be filled by other candidates at the will of the governor every few years. However, a federal judge is handled differently. Each one is appointed for a lifelong position by the president. This means these judges have deep experience and are highly qualified to judge these kinds of severe, intricate cases.

When you are charged with a local or state crime, your case will be investigated by the police, sheriffs and possibly your state’s bureau of investigation. However, federal cases are much more involved. You could be investigated by the FBI, DEA and other national agencies. This, in addition to the fact that there are fewer federal cases each year than any other jurisdiction, means cases can drag on for a long, long time.

Guilty Here, Not There

There are many laws that violate both state and federal law, and can land you in either court system. More often than not, one jurisdiction or the other will take over and attempt to prosecute. However, due to the separate sovereigns exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause, both court systems can act if they feel they need to. This means you could be found guilty at the state level and not the federal level, or vice versa. It could also mean you are found guilty in both courts.

However, situations like this are extremely rare. There are a few reasons for this. First, one judgment is usually enough to satisfy all courts. Second, there just are not enough resources to try a defendant at both levels. Finally, a dual conviction can result in some messy situations, which often want to be avoided.

Can Punishment Be Avoided?

Many think that if you are convicted of a federal crime, it means being locked up in a maximum security prison for the rest of your days. In fact, many think of Alcatraz. However, there are different levels of punishment, just like on the state level. However, because the severity of the crime that must be committed in order to appear in federal court, sentences usually are longer, especially with crimes like drug smuggling.

This does not mean you will spend your life behind bars. Oftentimes, you could be looking at a reduced sentence for cooperation or other special circumstances. Of course, you probably couldn’t name any of the other circumstances if you were asked. That is why it is crucial to have a good lawyer by your side. You do not want just any lawyer, however. It is important to find one who is intimately familiar with federal law and knows how the system works. With so many differences between state and local courts versus federal courts, hiring the wrong attorney could make the difference between a full sentence and a reduced one — or a guilty sentence and a not guilty one.