Frequently Asked Questions About Federal Charges

Federal Charge FAQ’s

If you find yourself being charged with a federal crime, you may have a lot of questions. Why is something considered a federal crime? Can a crime be charged both as a state and federal crime? Federal cases are often more complex with more severe penalties and, as such, can be more difficult to defend. If you are being investigated for a federal crime or have spoken to investigators, you need an attorney who is admitted to practice in federal court.

At Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh, we have over 50 years of combined experience in the criminal defense area of the law. We know the law and can represent you in both federal and state cases. Our lawyers find the most effective defense against a wide variety of criminal charges. In this article, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about federal charges.

What Are Federal Charges?

A federal crime is an offense that specifically violates U.S. federal laws or when an individual carries the criminal activity over multiple states such as commercial fraud, wire fraud, and drug trafficking. Federal offenses are prosecuted by government agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). There is a common misconception that federal crimes are primarily white-collar. A crime that is committed and crosses state lines will be a federal offense.

These are some federal offenses that are punishable under federal law:

  • Piracy
  • Treason
  • Counterfeiting
  • Drug trafficking
  • Violations of securities laws
  • Violations of interstate commerce

Do Federal Charges Carry Harsher Consequences?

Federal offenses almost always carry harsher consequences than state charges for similar crimes. A defendant in a federal crime will get a lengthy prison term, expensive fines, and be unable to hold certain occupations.

What Are Aggravated Factors?

Some crimes become federal charges when applying aggravated factors. Aggravated factors increase the severity of the crime. Usual cases involve the state authorities and are tried in the state courts. When the severity of the crime is increased to aggravated, it can move the case up to the federal courts where the defendant is faced with time in federal prison. In these cases, you can lose certain privileges such as driving, owning a gun, and being around children. 

Some examples of aggravated factors are:

  • Aggravated assault
  • Battery
  • Identity theft
  • Sexual abuse
  • Fraud

What Are Crimes Against the Government?

Crimes that are against the government such as attacks on the government and are federal offenses are not tried in a state court. Some offenses are related to fraud such as identity theft of a state or federal official. Other such crimes are against government systems like hacking a federally owned computer or taking actions to overthrow the government. If the crime constitutes treason, the person can face life behind bars.

What Are Terrorist Crimes?

Terrorist crimes are federal offenses in which a person affects others through terrorist behavior. Typically terrorist crimes lead to injury or death, such as hijacking a plane. Terrorism can occur at an individual level where a person suffers severe trauma that can require a lifetime of therapy or in a larger group such as robbing a bank. The greater the harm to others, the harsher the penalties. 

Are Crimes on Government Property Considered Federal Offenses?

A usual crime that would fall under the local state jurisdiction becomes a federal crime when it happens on federal soil or property. Crimes committed on Indian reservations, at government housing, and in buildings that are owned by the federal government all fall under federal jurisdiction, requiring federal investigation into the matter and issuing federal charges. 

What If a Crime Includes Intentional Harm?

When a crime shows an individual intending to harm others, the charges may increase in severity from state to federal. Such crimes as armed robbery, arson, and assassination of an official or federal officer.

What Happens When I Am Charged with a Federal Crime?

The criminal process for federal charges operates somewhat differently from the standard procedure for state criminal charges.

These are the steps when charged with a federal crime.


After arrest, the crime is investigated by federal agents, such as the DEA or the FBI. Many times their investigation and arrest is assisted by the state police. After the arrest, court proceedings begin.

Initial Appearance

After the arrest, you make a first appearance in a federal court near you. This is similar to a preliminary hearing except that, instead of the prosecutor approaching probable cause against the defendant, the judge makes a determination whether or not to continue proceedings. If the judge ascertains that the damage against you presents reasonable cause to move forward, then you move to the arraignment.


The arraignment for a federal charge is the same as for a state offense. The defendant has the formal charges read and given the option to enter a plea. If the defendant has legal representation at this time, the attorney will assist in the process and recommend a guilty plea.

Pretrial Period

If the defendant enters a plea of “not guilty” at the arraignment and decides to move forward to a trial, the pretrial period begins where prosecutors and defense attorneys perform discovery and motions. Federal motions that suppress evidence or dismiss charges are similar to a state court. The judge must approve these motions. Plea bargaining can continue throughout the duration of the pretrial period.


If no plea bargain agreement is reached, and the parties decide to move forward to trial, the trial will have the same standard procedures as other courts. The jury will be selected by the defendant’s attorney, the prosecution, and the judge. After the jury is chosen, the trial proceeds as it does on the state level with opening statements, evidence presentation, closing arguments, deliberation, verdict, and sentencing.


If you are found guilty and are dissatisfied with the verdict (for instance, if you feel that there was an error in either the legal process or in the courtroom procedure), you can file for an appeal. If the appeal has a successful result, there may be an overturning or a release, or not.

Contact Our Experienced Federal Criminal Lawyers 

If you are facing federal criminal charges, you need a lawyer who will aggressively fight for you. You need experienced legal representation from the very beginning who knows the federal legal process. Don’t wait. Contact Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh, Attorneys at Law for a free consultation by giving us a call (919) 845-6688 or filling out our easy-to-use contact form.