The American criminal justice system is, in a word, confusing. One of the most confusing aspects of the system is whether a criminal gets tried through the state or federal courts. While the majority of crimes are tried through the state court, there are certain crimes that are usually prosecuted on the federal level.

Understanding which crime goes where can be a dizzying task. I decided to whip up this blog post to outline the differences between state and federal crimes. If you’re curious, keep reading!

When is it Federal Jurisdiction?

As previously stated, the majority of crimes are crimes under state law. Thus, these criminals will be prosecuted in the state courts and sent to state prisons if convicted of a crime. 

The state has the power to legislate pretty much any crime, as long as the law written is constitutional. The federal government, however, is more limited and can only pass laws around crimes that are related to some federal or national interest. National interest is broadly defined to include:

  • Crimes on federal land or involving a federal officer. For example, the murder of an FBI agent would be eligible to be tried in the federal courts.
  • A crime where the criminal crosses state borders. An example of this would be when a kidnapping victim being moved from Texas to Arizona by the defendant.
  • Violations of immigration and customs law. A common example of this is the importation of child pornography.
  • Criminal conduct in multiple states. If a serial killer killed multiple people in several different states, the federal government could have jurisdiction. 

Differences in Prosecution

There are several differences between federal and state prosecution. In federal prosecution, the crime is investigated by FBI officers or DEA agents, and they are tried by an Assistant United States Attorney — a federal prosecutor. The case goes before a federal judge, who is appointed to a life-term by the president.

State crimes are investigated by police departments, sheriff offices, and any applicable state agencies. The cases are then tried by assistant district attorneys or city attorneys. Cases are tried in front of a judge like in federal prosecution, but judges do not serve for a life term. Some states have judicial elections and others have other systems like appointments.


In federal court, judges have advisory sentencing guidelines that suggest how to sentence a criminal convicted of a crime, and judges usually follow these guidelines. For the most part, federal sentences are longer than state sentences for the same crime. This is in part due to harsh mandatory sentencing rules on the federal level, particularly for drug crimes. 

What to Do
Whether you are charged with a federal or state crime, it is imperative that you reach out to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. It may seem tempting, but don’t attempt to save money on an attorney by representing yourself. A criminal defense attorney has the skills and experience necessary to help you avoid a harsh prison sentence and possible fines.