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What's the Difference Between a Federal & State Crime?

There are lots of different criminal offenses, and in fact several are illegal on many different levels. The majority of offenses are prosecuted either on the state level or on the federal level. However, few people actually understand the difference between these two designations and what it might mean for their case. On this blog, we’ll explain it in greater detail.

Priority of Jurisdiction

While the United States is a union of different states under the umbrella of a common federal government, the federal government actually delegates a number of responsibilities and decisions back to the states themselves. This includes the ability to make their own laws, enforce them, and try those who are accused of breaking them in court. The terms “state crime” and “federal crime” refer to the court that a case is tried in. State level crimes are tried in state courts and federal crimes in federal courts.

But how do you know which court your case will be tried in? In cases where an offense is illegal on both a state and federal level, it can be tried on both of these levels. This is usually the case for things like fraud, theft, drug crimes, and some violent offenses as well. The federal government has the first priority to try the case if they wish, but most of the time they’ll choose to defer the case to the state the crime took place in. The federal government only has so many resources, so they usually lean pretty heavily on state courts for these types of cases.

However, in some cases, particularly for serious charges, the federal government may choose to exercise its jurisdiction and try the case first. In these instances, your case will be tried in federal criminal court in the jurisdiction where the offense allegedly took place.

Dual Sovereignty

You may remember from your social studies class that U.S. law forbids “double jeopardy,” or being prosecuted twice for the same offense. However, what many people don’t realize is this does not apply to courts on different levels. You can actually be tried for the same offense twice as long as the two prosecutions are not in a court under the same jurisdiction.

One famous example of this is when NFL quarterback Michael Vick was found guilty of running an illegal dogfighting ring. Vick was initially prosecuted in federal court and sentenced to 23 months in prison. He was then prosecuted and convicted again by the state of Virginia. Prosecutors for the state of Virginia successfully argued that two trials in different jurisdictions did not qualify as “double jeopardy.”

If you find yourself facing a criminal offense on either the federal or state level, call the Law Offices of William D. Thompson and speak with a Scranton criminal defense attorney!