Federal Crimes & Federal Court

States are primarily responsible for prosecuting criminal offenses that occur within their jurisdictions. The federal criminal courts, meanwhile, handle the prosecution of federal offenses. These cases often involve interstate commerce, such as crossing state lines for purposes of drug trafficking, racketeering or other crimes.

The difference between federal and state courts comes down to the kinds of cases a court is authorized to hear. State and local courts are established by individual states while federal courts are established under the U.S. Constitution to decide laws passed by Congress. Federal courts also handle civil cases, but this article shall focus on the criminal side of the docket.

Common Types of Federal Crimes

Federal agencies are responsible for investigating certain types of federal offenses and bringing charges. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration may investigate narcotics violations such as drug trafficking. The Internal Revenue Service, on the other hand, will investigate tax evasion cases. The United States Attorney’s office is the federal prosecutor’s office in each federal district that decides whether to pursue federal crimes in their jurisdiction. Some states make up just one district, while more populous states may have multiple federal districts. 

Some federal crimes that may be heard by a federal judge include bank robbery, Medicaid fraud, counterfeiting, securities fraud, and racketeering. Sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping, money laundering, cybercrime and even falsely wearing military and police uniforms can also be prosecuted as federal crimes.

Murder is often prosecuted by state or local authorities, but it can also be a federal crime. The killing of an elected or appointed federal official will often be handled by federal prosecutors. For example, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 resulted in Timothy McVeigh’s conviction of first-degree murder of eight federal law enforcement officials. The bombing killed 168 people and injured more than 500.

Federal Grand Juries

Under the Fifth Amendment, all federal felony charges must be brought before a grand jury. While some states also use grand juries for state offenses, many do not. If a grand jury determines that there is probable cause that the defendant committed the crime, it will return an indictment with the charges.

Once the grand jury has returned an indictment, defendants are generally taken into custody (some dangerous defendants may already be in custody). All arrests must be based upon probable cause, and the defendant must be read their Miranda rights. The defendant will be advised of the right to remain silent, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to have an attorney during any questioning by authorities.

Potential Penalties

The potential penalties for a person convicted of a federal criminal can be substantial fines, federal probation or sentence to federal prison. Before cases go to trial, criminal defense lawyers often negotiate favorable plea agreements with federal prosecutors to reduce prison sentences.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Federal court judges must follow the federal sentencing guidelines when determining penalties in a defendant's case. The guidelines provide sentencing ranges for different offenses based on the type of offense and the defendant's criminal history.

Aggravating factors, such as injuries to victims may be considered. Courts may also take into account mitigating factors that point to a sentence in the lower end of the range.

Double Jeopardy

An individual who is tried in state court may also be tried in federal court for the same crime. If a state court does not produce a conviction, the individual may be tried in federal court for the same offense if it is also against federal laws.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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