What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes?

Some offenses in the U.S. can be state crimes, and some can be federal. What distinguishes these crimes is the laws they violate, where they occur, and who they are committed against. They are also distinct in who investigates and prosecutes them. Sometimes, wrongful conduct can be prosecuted by the state and federal governments. Both governments pursuing charges is not a violation of the Double Jeopardy clause because these bodies are considered separate sovereigns.

Anyone convicted of a state or federal crime can face harsh penalties, such as incarceration, fines, and other sanctions. Because of the severe consequences of a conviction, anyone charged should reach out to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

At Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger, we represent clients being prosecuted by the state or federal governments. To schedule a consultation with a member of our Iowa City team, please call us at (319) 499-5524.

An Overview of Legal Jurisdiction

Before discussing the specific differences between state and federal crimes, understanding jurisdiction is beneficial. Jurisdiction refers to a court’s power to hear cases and make decisions.

Courts do not have the authority to hear all cases. For instance, state courts cannot hear federal cases and vice versa. The legal matter must fall into a particular court’s territory for it to have jurisdiction.

Distinctions Between State and Federal Crimes

In the U.S., there is the state government and the federal government. Each has its own laws defining prohibited conduct. Generally, an offense is considered a state crime if it violates state statutes. For instance, if someone violates Iowa Code § 708.1, they will be charged with assault and prosecuted by the state government. Most crimes committed in the U.S. fall under state jurisdiction.

Similarly, federal crimes violate federal laws.

Additionally, an offense is a federal crime if it:

  • Was committed on federal property,
  • Was committed against a federal employee,
  • Involved fraud against the U.S. government or any of its agencies or
  • Crossed state lines or country borders.

An offense can cross state lines or country borders in two ways. The conduct could go from state to state or from the U.S. to another nation. For instance, someone in Iowa could transmit child pornography to someone in California.

The defendant might also cross state lines or country borders. For example, in a kidnapping case, the defendant might have allegedly transported somebody from Iowa to California.

An Overlap in Conduct Prohibited by State and Federal Governments

Although the state and federal governments have each established their own laws, some of these statutes might prohibit the same type of conduct. For example, Iowa Code § 707.2 concerns first-degree murder, which is the killing of another person with malice aforethought under certain circumstances.

Similarly, 18 U.S.C. § 1111 prohibits first-degree murder, unlawfully killing a human being with malice aforethought.

The difference between the two crimes is that the former occurs within Iowa’s borders while the latter happens in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

The Rule of Double Jeopardy

The fact that state and federal governments can have laws prohibiting the same type of conduct raises the question of Double Jeopardy. Double Jeopardy is a clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution preventing people from being tried for the same crime twice.

To illustrate, if someone is accused of murder and is acquitted, the government cannot prosecute them again for that same offense. Without the Double Jeopardy clause, governmental bodies might misuse their authority when pursuing individuals, upending the right to a fair trial.

Double Jeopardy provides additional benefits. For instance, it prevents people from being punished multiple times for the same offense. It also allows them to avoid going through the stress of trial more than once. Navigating a criminal case can be an intense experience. It is often highly publicized and involves the presentation of evidence, testimonies from witnesses accusing the defendant, as well as experts who explain why such conduct was prohibited. All of these can take their toll on any person going through it.

It must be mentioned that a person can go through a trial again even if the Double Jeopardy clause applies. This can happen when an individual is convicted, and they appeal the decision. The appeals court may send the case back to be retried. In this situation, the second trial does not constitute a violation.

Regarding crimes violating both state and federal laws, the Double Jeopardy clause does not apply because of the Dual Sovereign doctrine. Under the doctrine, state and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns, which means each can prosecute a person for the same crime.

The Dual Sovereign doctrine also applies to states. If someone commits an offense in Iowa, for example, and the violation is also considered a crime in California, both states can bring charges.

Who Investigates and Prosecutes State and Federal Crimes?

Another distinction between state and federal crimes is who investigates and prosecutes them.

Investigations involve collecting and analyzing evidence to build a case against a suspect. Local law enforcement agencies (e.g., sheriff’s departments or city police departments) usually investigate state crimes. In comparison, federal crimes are investigated by big-name federal agencies that almost everyone has heard of, such as the FBI, DEA, or ATF. Each agency typically handles specific matters but might collaborate to build more robust cases against suspects.

Prosecution involves filing charges against the defendant, taking them to court, and attempting to convince a jury or judge that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecuting attorneys present evidence and witnesses to support the claim that the defendant committed the alleged crime.

Generally, district attorneys and assistant district attorneys handle prosecution in state cases, while assistant US attorneys take on federal matters.

The Difference in State and Federal Penalties

The punishments imposed upon a conviction differ for state and federal crimes. Take kidnapping, for example. Generally, the offense involves an individual unlawfully confining or transporting another person.

Under Iowa Code § 710, first-degree kidnapping is a class A felony, punishable by life imprisonment. Second-degree kidnapping, a class B felony, can be penalized by no more than 25 years in prison. And third-degree kidnapping is a class C felony, carrying a maximum prison term of 10 years.

In contrast, the federal government does not separate kidnapping into different classes of felonies. According to 18 U.S.C. § 1201, the offense is punishable by life imprisonment.

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Violations of state laws fall under state jurisdiction, while violations of federal laws fall under federal jurisdiction. Regardless of which type of law has been broken, the offense will be investigated thoroughly and prosecuted harshly. A conviction can potentially affect a person for the rest of their life.

If you have been charged with a state or federal crime, retain the services of a criminal defense attorney right away. They can review your situation, build a legal strategy, and go up against the prosecutor to pursue a favorable outcome.

Reach out to our Iowa City attorneys at Keegan, Tindal & Jaeger by calling (319) 499-5524 or contacting us online.