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How are federal criminal charges different?

Criminal prosecutions can be brought in state or federal court. What is the difference between a state crime and a federal crime? What triggers federal charges? Is federal court any different than state court?

Yes, there are important differences. Federal crimes are almost always felony charges, with potentially tougher punishments. Federal court operates under different procedures, from rules of evidence to sentencing. If you are suspected of a federal offense, make sure your lawyer is experienced in that arena.

What is a federal crime?

A federal crime, in the simplest sense, is any offense that falls under the federal government’s jurisdiction. For example, crimes against the government or crimes that cross state lines trigger federal law. Many crimes, such as drug offenses, may be prosecuted in either state or federal court — or both!

Some of the most common federal charges are firearm offenses, drug crimes, sex offenses, bank robbery, kidnapping,  racketeering, public corruption, and “white collar” crimes such as identity theft, bank fraud, securities fraud or tax evasion. Very commonly, federal prosecutions involve collateral charges such as conspiracy, money laundering, mail fraud/wire fraud, and obstruction of justice. Filing multiple charges increases the fear and pressure, and gives prosecutors greater latitude for plea bargains.

Federal court is a different landscape

U.S. District Court (federal court) operates under the same basic rules as the state courts of South Carolina. You are entitled to a trial by jury if you choose. You are entitled to legal counsel and all the constitutional protections against self-incrimination. But there are key differences, namely in the type of evidence or witnesses that might be allowed in federal court.

The U.S. attorney (chief federal prosecutor) or assistant U.S. attorney (federal prosecutor) may directly file the charges, but typically the prosecution first presents the case to a federal grand jury. After hearing the evidence, the grand jury returns an indictment (formal charges) or a “no bill” (no charges). The grand jury does not determine guilt or innocence – it only decides if there is a strong enough case to move forward. If an indictment is handed down, you and your attorney then determine whether to negotiate a resolution or proceed to trial.

Upon conviction, certain federal offenses carry a mandatory minimum prison term, which limits opportunities for negotiation and sometimes forces the accused to go to trial. There are also enhancement factors that may years of prison on top of the underlying sentence.

It is possible to challenge federal charges

Another key difference in federal crimes is the caliber of the prosecution. Federal agencies have the resources to conduct long and far-reaching investigations, including use of surveillance and informants. The investigators and prosecutors are experienced and aggressive.

Criminal defense attorneys need to “bring their A game” to prevail in federal court. They need to know the applicable federal statutes and be familiar with federal court procedure. They need to come prepared for trial. Choose your defense wisely.

Source: Federal vs. State Courts – Key Differences (FindLaw)


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