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10 Differences Between Federal & State Criminal Courts

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What's the Difference Between State and Federal Courts?

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On a previous blog, we provided insight into some of the factors that go into the decision of whether criminal cases will be handled by state or federal prosecutors. While the particular facts and circumstances of a case are important when evaluating how a case is likely to be handled and by which agency, it is important to address why there is often a substantial concern over where a case is to be heard. A lot of this has to do with the distinct differences between state and federal courts.

Provided below is a list of the most significant differences between state and federal criminal courts:

1) Jurisdiction

How does the jurisdiction of state and federal court differ? While state and federal prosecutors have the power to charge defendants for many of the same types of crimes, there are some offenses which only the federal government holds jurisdiction over, or which are more likely to be investigated and prosecuted by federal authorities. Generally, these include crimes in which the U.S. government or any of its agencies are a party (i.e. tax evasion or Social Security fraud), crimes committed on federal land or property, and crimes involving interstate or international commerce (i.e. offenses committed across state lines or international borders).

2) Defense Attorneys

Only attorneys who are admitted to practice before a federal court can represent defendants charged with federal crimes. What’s more, defense attorneys must be admitted to the particular court (i.e. the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio) where the defendant is being charged. Not all criminal attorneys practice in federal courts.

3) Procedure

Rules and procedures vary between state and federal courts, with differences in investigatory procedures, discovery, motions, and other aspects of the criminal process. This is why it is so critically important to work with defense attorneys who have experience in the federal court system. While state criminal courts and procedure can vary from state to state, the rules and procedures in federal courts are always the same, no matter in which state the federal court exists.

4) Prosecutors

Federal prosecutors are called Assistant United States Attorneys, or AUSAs. In comparison to state prosecutors, AUSAs typically play larger roles in the cases they prosecute, spending more time on investigations and the screening of potential cases. When a federal prosecutor has filed charges, it often means they already have sufficient reason to believe the case is worth prosecuting. State prosecutors, by contrast, often evaluate cases after defendants have already been arrested and charged by local authorities.

5) Judges

The judges who preside over state and federal cases are different. In federal courts, defendants may appear before a federal magistrate judge following an arrest or indictment, or in response to certain motions filed in a case. Magistrate judges have limited powers, and work under presiding U.S. District Judges, who serve for life after being appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the Senate. U.S. District Judges hear both civil and criminal cases within their federal jurisdiction. State judges are typically elected or appointed for a limited number of years.

6) Court Schedules

The schedules in both state and federal courts can vary considerably. For example, federal judges usually handle fewer cases than most judges in state courts, where many cases are set to be heard in the same hearing, rather than only one case set for hearing or trial in federal court. Prosecutors in state courts, often due to their workload and the fact that they may not have been involved in a defendant’s initial arrest or investigation, can also be more unpredictable than in federal courts. Federal prosecutors don’t usually dismiss or delay cases with the frequency of state courts, and abide by a much speedier trial process.

7) Bail

When arrested and charged with a state crime, defendants may have the option of paying bail simply by coming up with the necessary funds or by paying a bondsman to post bond. In the federal criminal court system, defendants are usually “released” on personal recognizance bond or by posting large sums to secure their release. Federal criminal defendants are also subject to pretrial release conditions and supervision by an officer of the court, and may be required to frequently report to pretrial services and follow strict rules imposed by a federal judge. Some cases may also require a defendant to be monitored with a GPS ankle monitor if they are deemed a flight risk, danger to the community, or have foreign connections.

8) Juries

Juries in state and federal courts are selected from different jury pools. In state courts, juries are people who live in the county where a trial is to be held. Federal jurors, by contrast, may live anywhere within larger federal districts, meaning federal juries can be more diverse and may include individuals from different urban and rural communities with vastly different social views.

9) Sentencing

Perhaps the most distinguishing and most frequently cited difference between state and federal courts is how punishment is levied. Individuals convicted of crimes by state or local prosecutors can face a range of penalties, as well as incarceration in a state prison. While there are some federal crimes which may only result in federal probation and/or fines, most individuals convicted in federal court are subject to federal sentencing guidelines. Federal sentencing guidelines, in addition to other federal laws regarding sentencing and punishment, have been widely criticized as overly harsh and outdated. This is especially true of severe mandatory minimums and sentencing enhancements, which can result in lengthy sentences in a federal prison, even for first-time and non-violent offenders. There is also no parole in the federal criminal justice system; convicted inmates serve roughly 85% of their sentences. The harsh sentencing standards used in federal courts have been seen as one of the largest factors behind the federal government’s incredibly high conviction rates, and which some argue leave federal defendants with no real right to trial, as taking a plea agreement is often less riskier than numerous years, if not decades, in federal prison.

10) Post-Conviction

Federal and state courts vary as significantly in post-conviction matters as they do with initial charges and sentencing, with marked differences in procedures for motions and other forms of post-conviction relief. Additionally, individuals released from state and federal prisons are subject to different supervisory agencies and different terms, which can vary depending on the underlying offense and their criminal history.

Federal and State Court Vary Tremendously

State and federal criminal cases vary tremendously in court structure, rules, and procedures, as well as the investigations and law enforcement agencies involved. For these reasons, it is crucial to work with attorneys who have verifiable experience and results in the court system where your case is being handled.

Charged with a State or Federal Crime? Choose Proven Lawyers.

At Friedman Nemecek & Long, L.L.C., L.L.C., our attorneys have proven ourselves in both state and federal courts across Ohio and the U.S. Led by Attorney Ian N. Friedman, a nationally recognized defense attorney with proven results in complex cases involving state and federal crimes, our team is able to help clients navigate their unique legal journeys, explore their available options, and create defense strategies driven by insight and experience. Our extensive knowledge of the federal court system, local courts across Ohio and Ohio, and the enforcement agencies involved in criminal cases can be invaluable to helping clients effectively protect their rights during every phase of the process.


To discuss a potential case and our firm’s services, contact us for a confidential case review.


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