What Distinguishes Federal And State Criminal Law?

If you're trying to figure out a matter involving federal criminal laws, you likely have some questions about what makes this level of the system distinct. The differences can be surprising, and it's wise to consult with a federal criminal lawyer before you make any decisions. Here are five of the biggest differences between the federal and state systems.


In some ways, modern American laws make the whole world into the jurisdiction of America. Ask someone like computer hacker and activist Julian Assange, who is neither a U.S. citizen nor has ever been to the U.S. Despite this, he was arrested at the Ecuadorian embassy in the U.K. for extradition to America. Federal jurisdiction has a much longer reach than even a powerful state like California or Texas.


The range of matters a federal court can address is much wider than those that state courts confront. Federal agencies have the right to investigate matters like tax and Social Security fraud, and they also frequently get a say when an offense crosses state lines. Simply put, there's a lot more stuff you can face federal criminal charges for. Making the problem worse is that there are many state-level versions of the same crimes, meaning you might still face state prosecution even if you slip off the hook on federal charges.

Bar Admissions

Being admitted to the federal bar is a really narrow thing. A federal criminal lawyer might be admitted to only present cases before a specific court, such as the Northern District of Virginia. This means they can only represent clients on matters before that court, ultimately making it challenging for some folks to get counsel.

Size Matters

Federal agencies bring nearly limitless resources to bear on cases. They have budgets that are denominated in billions of dollars, and most employ thousands of people. Prosecuting a complex case is merely a matter of want-to for the feds. State agencies don't have the same resources.

Picking Their Preferred Court

Smart U.S. attorneys try matters in courts where they stand a good chance of winning. If you've been accused of offenses in both New York and Florida, a prosecutor might elect to bring initial charges against you before the district court they feel is most likely to deliver a conviction. The Department of Justice keeps extensive data on this topic, and where to try a defendant is a big part of the conversation that happens before charging.