State Crimes vs Federal Crimes: What’s the Difference?

While the overwhelming majority of crimes are investigated and tried at the state level, hundreds of cases are prosecuted in federal courts in North Carolina each year. To help you understand the difference between federal and state crimes, our federal criminal defense attorneys in Raleigh are doing a side-by-side comparison of the two.

What Is a Federal Crime?

First, let’s explore what makes a crime specifically a federal crime. Just like how there is a North Carolina General Statute that outlines crimes at the state level, there is The Code of Laws of the United States of America (often abbreviated to United States Code or U.S.C.). Often, there is overlap between the two – bank robbery is a crime both in North Carolina and at the federal level, though federal crimes typically fall under the following guidelines:

  • The crime is committed on federal land, such as a military base, national park, or military base.
  • The crime is against a federal law enforcement agent.
  • The crime crosses state lines or occurs in multiple states.
  • The crime is related to immigration violations or customs violations.
  • The crime is committed against a federal entity or using a federal service, such as the IRS, U.S. Mint or U.S. Postal Service.

It’s important to note that any crime that is outlined in both the N.C.G.S. as well as the U.S.C. can be prosecuted in federal court. The Department of Justice can assume jurisdiction over the case so what may have started as a state crime can become a federal crime. However, the overwhelming majority of crimes prosecuted in federal court fall under at least one of the five guidelines listed above.

Examples of Federal Crimes

Some of the most common federal crimes include:

  • Fraud, including mail fraud and wire fraud
  • Drug trafficking
  • Theft, specifically stolen goods transported across state lines;
  • Gun charges, including illegally distributing or transporting firearms across state lines;
  • Tax evasion;
  • Kidnapping as well as transporting a minor across state lines;

What Are State Crimes?

State crimes are activities outlawed by the state legislature. As mentioned above, these are outlined in the N.C.G.S. These crimes range from minor misdemeanors with little to no jail time to Class A felonies punishable by life in prison, but they all occur solely in the state of North Carolina.

Examples of State Crimes

State crimes vary widely, but the majority of crimes in North Carolina include:

Constitutional Supremacy Clause

In the event that a crime is committed that goes against both the U.S.C. and the N.C.G.S., and there are jurisdiction concerns, the courts must follow the Constitutional Supremacy Clause outlined in the Constitution. This states that federal law takes higher priority over state law and the federal authorities will determine the course of the investigation and prosecution.

For example, if a county sheriff’s department is investigating drug trafficking, the Department of Justice can claim jurisdiction over the case, especially if the case crosses state lines, but even if it doesn’t, they can still take the case. The local police must give over the case to the federal investigators or prosecutors as federal law supersedes state law.

Investigating and Prosecuting Federal Crimes vs State Crimes

Now that we know the difference between state and federal charges, let’s look at how they are investigated and prosecuted.

Investigating & Prosecuting Federal Crimes

Federal law enforcement agencies investigate offenses, including:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Secret Service
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)

These agencies are all under the Department of Justice (DOJ) and they investigate crimes and charge those they allege to be responsible. United States attorneys then prosecute the case in federal court which is heard by a United States District Judge. District judges have been appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate and are serving lifetime appointments to the bench.

Investigating & Prosecuting State Crimes

State crimes are investigated locally, such as by Raleigh Police Department or Wake County Sheriffs. The case is then heard in a county court by a judge appointed by the governor and prosecuted by Wake County District Attorneys.

Choosing a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

Federal cases have a much higher conviction rate than state cases as well as more serious penalties. In addition to this, nearly any criminal case can be picked up by the Department of Justice if it breaks federal law. That’s why, if you are being investigated for a crime or have been arrested, you should work with an attorney who is experienced in both state and federal cases and can navigate both court systems.

Contact Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh for a Free Consultation

The DOJ can assume jurisdiction over most state cases, so if you are facing criminal charges, you need to be proactive and work with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. At Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh, we have over 60 years of combined legal experience and represent clients in the Eastern District of North Carolina, including Raleigh and Fayetteville. To speak with an attorney 24 hours a day, call (919) 845-6688 or fill out the form below to set up a free case consultation.

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