As you know, some crimes are handled by local police departments and sheriffs’ offices, and other crimes are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies. If you are charged with any crime in the Roanoke area, you will need to speak with a Roanoke criminal defense attorney.

How are state and federal laws, courts, and criminal trials and procedures different? Keep reading for a brief look at the distinctions between state and federal criminal laws – and why those distinctions will be important if you are charged with a federal or state crime in Virginia.

Overwhelmingly, most criminal investigations and prosecutions – for murder, rape, robbery, assault, and similar crimes – are conducted by local and state police agencies and are prosecuted in state courts for crimes allegedly committed under state laws.

What Constitutes A Federal Crime?

Federal laws, at least ostensibly, are linked to some type of federal issue or interest. Tax fraud, crimes committed on federal property, or crimes that involve crossing state lines are usually prosecuted as federal crimes in the federal criminal court system.

For that reason, fewer crimes are prosecuted at the federal level. Congress only passes criminal laws that deal with multi-state crimes or with crimes that involve the federal government, including but not limited to:

1. Crimes committed on federal lands and properties, including national parks, military bases, federal buildings, and native American reservations are federal crimes. Any crime against a federal law enforcement agent while that agent is on duty is a federal crime.

2. Most crimes that cross a state line are federal crimes. Trafficking drugs and taking a kidnapping victim across a state line are federal crimes, for example. An internet fraud scheme that victimizes people in multiple states is also a federal crime.

3. Customs and immigration violations are federal crimes.

Although Congress only passes laws that deal with crimes involving multiple states or the federal government, federal crimes range from assassinating the president to vandalizing a public mailbox.

Are Criminal Cases Handled Differently In State And Federal Courts?

The federal law enforcement agencies that investigate federal offenses include but are not limited to:

1. the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
2. the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
3. the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
4. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
5. the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS)
6. the U.S. Postal Inspection Service
7. the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
8. the Secret Service
9. military police agencies such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)

How Do Federal Courts Differ From State Courts?

Several key differences distinguish the federal courts from the state courts. Federal judges serve for life. They must be named by the president and approved by the Senate. In Virginia, judges are appointed for an eight-year term by a vote of the majority of the members elected to each house of the General Assembly.

And while some crimes are only federal crimes, others (bank robbery, for example) violate both federal and state laws and may be prosecuted in either court system.

It’s rare, but there is no constitutional barrier to “concurrent” prosecutions in both state and federal courts for the same crime if it violates both state and federal laws. The constitutional ban on double jeopardy applies only to multiple criminal prosecutions in the same court system.

For example, if you’re old enough, you remember that in 1992, the jury in a California criminal court found four Los Angeles police officers not guilty in the beating of motorist Rodney King, but two of those officers were later convicted in federal court for violating King’s civil rights.

Nevertheless, such double prosecutions are rare, and most criminal defendants will be tried in either state or federal court, but not both. In these cases, state and federal prosecutors make case-by-case decisions as to whether a defendant will be prosecuted at the state level or federal level.

How Are Federal Criminal Convictions Penalized?

Like the penalties for state-level crimes, the penalties for federal crimes vary widely and depend on the charge itself, the details of the charge, whether there are “aggravating” circumstances, and whether the offender has any previous criminal convictions.

Prosecution guidelines are established by federal law and by the U.S. Attorney in each federal judicial district. There are three “types” of federal crimes – felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions – and nine “classes” of federal crimes. Some federal statutes have the amount of fines written into them, but generally, the maximum penalties for each are listed here:

1. for a Class A felony conviction: life or capital punishment and a fine of $250,000
2. for a Class B felony conviction: at least 25 years in prison and a fine of $250,000
3. for a Class C felony conviction: 10 to 25 years in prison and a fine of $250,000
4. for a Class D felony conviction: 5 to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000
5. for a Class E felony conviction: 1 to 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000
6. for a Class A misdemeanor conviction: 6 months to 1 year in prison and a $100,000 fine
7. for a Class B misdemeanor conviction: 30 days to 6 months in prison and a $5,000 fine
8. for a Class C misdemeanor conviction: 5 to 30 days in custody and a $5,000 fine
9. for an infraction conviction: up to 5 days in custody and a $5,000 fine

How Will The Right Defense Lawyer Help You?

Generally speaking, federal criminal penalties are harsher than the penalties imposed by state courts for the same crimes, and the prison terms are longer. Convictions for federal drug crimes carry mandatory minimum prison terms.

If you are charged with either a federal crime or a state crime, or if you are under investigation regarding any crime in the Roanoke area, you cannot afford to be represented by the wrong Roanoke criminal defense attorney.

Your defense attorney should have substantial experience in the court system where you are being tried. In federal cases, your lawyer should have experience in the federal court system, because the rules that apply there differ substantially from the rules that govern state courts.

Wherever you face a criminal charge, you must be represented by an aggressive defense attorney who can guide you through the criminal justice process, defend your legal rights, effectively cast doubt on the evidence against you, and bring your case to its best possible conclusion.