Key Differences Between State & Federal Courts and Crimes

When it comes to crime, a person will typically have their case handled be either the state or the federal government. Where your case is to be handled does matter, as there is a significant difference between the California state and federal criminal justice system. Understanding this difference and how it may relate to any investigation or current charges you or a loved one is facing is an important place to start learning when it comes to understanding your rights, what to expect, and how to enlist the right support as you navigate the legal journey ahead.

Our legal team at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP has proven experience representing clients charged with both state and federal crimes, and is prepared to assist anyone facing investigation or charges in taking the right steps from the outset. Below, we discuss some important differences between state and federal courts and crimes.


State and federal criminal courts are separate beasts, and one of the most significant differences to do with jurisdiction, or the power a government entity has when it comes to enforcing laws, investigating and prosecuting defendants, and penalizing those who are convicted. A few important concepts worth knowing about state and federal criminal jurisdiction include:

  • Concurrent jurisdiction – State and federal criminal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over a number of crimes. This means that both the state and federal government often have the ability to prosecute defendants for the same crime (i.e. murder is illegal under California and federal law). However, because it wouldn’t make sense for the feds to supersede the state and handle every criminal case, the federal government is generally selective in what it does prosecute.
  • Common federal crimes – Although there is concurrent jurisdiction, the federal government will typically focus on certain types of crimes, this includes crimes against the federal government or its agencies (i.e. mail fraud, securities fraud, etc.), crimes on federal land (i.e. drunk driving on national park land), and crimes that involve multiple states or the crossing of international borders.
  • Will my case be federal? – It depends on the unique circumstances of your case, and, often, whether it was the state or federal government initiated the investigation (as cases typically stay with the branch that started it). The interstate / international element of offense may or may not always result in federal charges, which is why other individual factors may be involved, especially in cases involving drug crimes like trafficking, sex crimes like child pornography, and certain white collar crimes. The nature and scope of a crime, as well as its potential connection to larger operations or higher level offenders, can determine whether any particular case is handled by the federal government instead of the state.

The Parties Involved

The key players in state and federal criminal courts may generally be the same, as there aren’t overwhelming differences in the form and structure of each. However, there are some important differences that do matter. These include differences in:

  • Attorneys – Not all attorneys practice in federal court. That’s due not only to the fact that they can be challenging cases with higher stakes, but also because attorneys must be admitted to practice within a federal district court. For example, Partner Jeremy Lessem is admitted to practice in U.S. District Court (as well as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court), which allows him to represent clients in federal court, even all the way to the federal government’s highest court.
  • Prosecutors – Prosecutors in local, states, and federal court both have similar positions in representing the government and meeting the burden of proof necessary to convict defendants. However, their roles are somewhat different, particularly when it comes to involvement. Federal prosecutors, who are called AUSAs or Assistant U.S. Attorneys, typically have more involvement in investigations, and more time to screen the merits of any potential cases. Conversely, local and state prosecutors typically don’t see cases until defendants have been arrested by local law enforcement.
  • Judges – Federal courts have magistrate judges, who commonly handle initial appearances following arrest and indictment and some motions and work under U.S. District Judges, who have more powers than magistrate judges. U.S. District Judges are appointed by the President of the United States, and must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. They serve life appointments. Judges in state and local courts are often elected by local voters, or may be appointed only for a limited number of years.
  • Juries – Jury pools are different in both state and federal courts. In state-handled criminal trials, juries are comprised of local residents from the county where the trial is being held. Federal juries come from larger federal districts, meaning they might be more diverse. The Central District of California, for example, is the most populous federal district in the country, comprised of nearly 20 million people from throughout Los Angeles County, Southern, and Central California.  

Rules & Procedures

The purpose and general function of state and federal criminal courts are generally the same; they enforce the law. However, the rules and procedures they apply and permit are different, and can impact investigations, motions, discovery, and other elements of the process. Rules and procedures can also vary by state, whereas they are always consistent in any federal court, regardless of district or location.

Some key differences in the rules and procedures used within state and federal criminal courts include:

  • Bail – Most people charged with crimes by the state are released on their own recognizance, or after posting bail or bond. The “bail” process is different for defendants in the federal criminal justice system, who will have a pretrial officer and specific pretrial release terms, such as movement restrictions.
  • Sentencing – Sentencing may be the most glaring difference between state and federal crimes. That’s due in large part to the reputation the federal criminal justice system has earned for imposing notoriously harsh and life-altering sentences based on draconian federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums. In California, thanks to jail and prison alignment reform, state inmates typically serve far less than their full sentences, sometimes around just 50%. Inmates in federal prison typically serve 85% of their sentences.
  • Post-Conviction – Life after conviction is also difference for individuals convicted of state and federal crimes, both in terms of post-conviction relief and rules and procedures, and court supervision.

State & Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers with a Proven Record

Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP is comprised of award-winning trial lawyers who have handled thousands of criminal cases in local, state, and federal courts throughout Southern California. Our team has extensive experience with pre-trial intervention, all types of state and federal crimes, and certain matters of post-conviction relief. Whether you have been charged by the state or federal government, or are looking to have a potentially federal case handled by the state, our team is available to discuss your options and explain how we can help. Call (800) 462-7160 to request a free case review.