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Differences Between State and Federal Crimes

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Maryland criminal defense attorney Kush Arora.

How does the criminal process differ for state versus federal crimes?

Kush Arora: State cases don’t have the conviction rate that federal cases have. In state case situations, a person is usually charged at the scene of a crime or very shortly after a crime takes place based on an officer’s investigation. Once officers develop probable cause, they make their arrest in a particular case and the case begins a process of moving towards trial. Federal cases operate a little bit differently. This is usually just the beginning of what could be a very long state investigation. While federal cases are dealing with very serious offenses, we’re far more likely to see a case that’s close to completion in terms of government investigation. Especially in the higher-level federal cases, the investigation and the work on behalf of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and their agents and police, has already been completed for the most part well before they have decided to criminally charge someone. Their conviction rates are a great deal higher at the federal level for that reason than in state court. Federal agents don’t usually move forward on cases and don’t usually go out to make arrests or issue warrants unless they feel very strongly that they have a solid case and the evidence that they need to prove it.

How do the penalties differ for state versus federal crimes?

Kush Arora: The penalties differ in varying ways. There are mandatory minimums when it comes to different kinds of charges in the federal system that we don’t see to the same degree in the state system. There are sentencing guidelines that are adhered to far more often in the federal system than they are in the state system. One of the first things that we do as defense attorneys in the federal system is look at the guideline to determine exactly what our strategies are going to be for trial. So much is dictated by what risk there is in trying certain cases versus working them out with the government. At the state level, there are still guidelines that play some role in our decision-making process, but not as heavily, because judges in the state system are far more inclined with their sentences, given good reason, to step outside of the guidelines. That can go both ways; they can go over the guidelines or under. A defense attorney has more of an opportunity in the state system to influence a judge to fall under a particular guideline because of certain mitigating circumstances that might apply.

What circumstances determine whether or not a state crime becomes a federal crime?

Kush Arora: There are many different reasons that this could happen. One of the most common is a drug offense-type case. Occasionally, we might find a situation where somebody is charged with being in possession of a large amount of drugs, for example, if they had a kilo of heroin on them. A kilo of heroin is a significant amount of heroin, and not an amount that we usually see at the state level. A kilo of heroin would constitute a possession with intent to distribute charge in almost any state court system throughout the state of Maryland. The reason a case like that might be referred to the Feds is because a large quantity of drugs usually will have to do with interstate criminal activity, which falls under federal jurisdiction. That means they’re tracking this narcotic from one state to another and no particular state has jurisdiction over it, but rather the federal system has jurisdiction over that case. The penalties are also different and a little bit more severe. If the government feels like they have a strong case, they may be in a position to get mandatory minimums against a defendant by moving the case into federal court, as opposed to keeping it in state court where mandatory minimums might not apply.