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When is a Case Prosecuted in Federal Court?

In the United States, we have two kinds of courts: We have state courts and federal courts. The state courts handle state-level criminal cases, whereas the federal courts handle cases involving violations of federal law. Continue reading as we explain this in more detail.

State laws are enacted by state legislators and federal laws are established by Congress. When someone violates a state law, they will be prosecuted in state court. When someone breaks a federal law, he or she will face a federal prosecution in federal court.

The vast majority of criminal cases are prosecuted in the state courts because most criminal offenses violate state law. So, the robberies, thefts, sexual assaults, drug crimes, DUIs, and homicides are all prosecuted in the state courts.

If an offense is classified as a federal crime (a federal offense or violation of federal law), then it’s prosecuted in federal court. Examples of federal crimes include but are not limited to the following:

  • Bankruptcy fraud
  • Internet crimes
  • Mail fraud
  • Bank robbery
  • Kidnapping
  • Child pornography
  • Identity theft
  • Credit card fraud
  • Computer crimes
  • Drug trafficking
  • Federal hate crimes
  • Damaging public mailboxes
  • Immigration fraud
  • White collar crimes

What if a Crime Violates State & Federal Law?

On the above list, some of the crimes, such as kidnapping, child pornography, drug trafficking, credit card fraud, and identity theft violate state and federal law and that happens sometimes. When an offender has violated both state and federal laws with a single offense, the state and federal prosecutors decide whether to prosecute the defendant in state or federal court.

“Is a state or federal prosecution preferable?” We do have something to say on this subject. For starters, federal charges almost always involve harsher penalties than the same crime would impose on the state level. Meaning, if a crime is prosecuted on the federal level, it will likely involve much heftier fines and sentencing.

However, federal prisons are known for being much cushier than state prisons. They have higher security than state prisons, but they’re mostly filled with white collar criminals. In contrast, state prisons house the rapists and murderers, so they are more “dangerous.”

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