Are Federal Charges More Serious than State Charges?

The U.S. has two parallel criminal justice systems—one state and one federal. Sometimes, an offense can be both a state and a federal crime, and in other situations, an incident will give rise to only state or federal prosecution.

One question we receive is whether federal charges are more serious than state ones. Actually, there is no clear answer. Everything depends on the exact offense with which you have been charged. However, the state and federal justice systems are certainly different, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each. Reach out to a Knoxville criminal defense attorney for more information.

Federal Charges Sometimes Result in More Prison Time

It’s wrong to state that federal charges “always” result in more jail time, though this is a distinct possibility. For example, if you are convicted of delivering more than 500 grams of cocaine, you could face between 15-25 years in jail under Tennessee state law, § 39-17-417. Under federal law, a defendant charged with the same offense faces between 5-40 years in jail, so a defendant could face more time in prison if they are prosecuted by federal authorities.

Of course, it is also possible to receive less prison time for a federal conviction, as the above example illustrates. To fully understand what you are facing, please meet with an experienced Knoxville criminal defense attorney to review the circumstances of your arrest.

Federal Cases Usually Move Slower

There are far fewer people moving through the federal justice system than in all the state systems combined. In fact, federal jails hold around 200,000 prisoners, whereas state prisons and jails combined have over 2 million people serving inside them. Given these numbers, you would expect federal cases to move faster through the court system, but they typically don’t.

Federal prosecutors often take their time bringing charges and prosecuting the case. They might ask judges to delay a case, often for six months or longer. It can be incredibly frustrating as a defendant to wait in jail without a clear trial date. Under federal law, you can request a speedy trial, but there are still ways the prosecutor can slow things down by requesting extensions.

Sometimes, the slower pace can help our clients, as we have more time to fully go over the evidence and find weaknesses in the prosecution’s case. We can bring a motion to have evidence suppressed because the authorities violated the Constitution when they seized it, though we can do that in state court as well.

Federal Prosecutors Often Have More Resources

With the federal government having more staff and resources to commit to a case, federal prosecutions can be very difficult to defend. In our experience, state prosecutors can sometimes overlook evidence that a federal prosecutor normally wouldn’t.

Of course, this doesn’t mean it is easier to defend yourself in state court. Both state and federal prosecutors are professionals, so you should expect a vigorous prosecution in either forum. A Knoxville criminal defense attorney should understand that both federal and state prosecutions warrant a top-tier defense.

Both Federal and State Charges Carry Collateral Consequences

If you are convicted of a crime, there are many situations where it will work against you—even after you have served your debt to society. For example, a criminal conviction comes back to haunt many defendants in the following situations:

  • An employer performs a pre-employment background check on an applicant. Depending on the crime, the employer might decide not even to interview you for the job but will instead throw the application in the rejection pile.
  • A landlord might run a criminal background check on you before deciding whether to rent an apartment.
  • A bank might run a criminal background check before deciding whether to extend you a loan.
  • A professional licensing body might refuse to grant you a license to practice your profession depending on your criminal convictions and whether you can convince them you are rehabilitated.

These are only some of the ways that a state or federal conviction can follow you around, making life difficult. Many employers and landlords will not distinguish between federal convictions and state convictions, viewing them both equally seriously.

You Can Face Both State and Federal Prosecution for the Same Offense

If an offense is both a state and federal crime, a defendant can face prosecution twice. This might sound unfair, especially if you have heard of the double jeopardy clause.

This clause in the Constitution states that a defendant cannot face prosecution twice for the same crime—but there is a catch. The defendant cannot be prosecuted by the same “sovereign” for the same crime twice. The federal government and the Tennessee government are independent sovereigns, so there is no double jeopardy bar to prosecuting you twice. So if you are picked up for delivery of cocaine, for example, you can be prosecuted for violating both federal and state law.

Call a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer in Knoxville for Help

Whether you are facing federal or state charges, hiring a seasoned criminal defense attorney is the first step every suspect should take. With the right attorney by your side, you can hold the government to its burden of proof and make it much harder for the state to convict you of a crime. The single biggest mistake most defendants make is believing that they can outsmart the authorities.

Barnes Law has been representing criminal defendants in Tennessee for years. Our criminal defense attorney in Knoxville has obtained favorable resolutions for many of our clients, whether that involves having charges dismissed, accepting a generous plea deal, or winning an acquittal before a judge and jury. Each case is different, but the attention of detail we bring to all our cases remains the same.

If you need help, please contact us today. We offer the public a free initial consultation, which you can schedule by calling 865-805-5703 or completing this online contact form. Avoid delay. The sooner we can get to work for you, the stronger your chances of obtaining a favorable resolution to your case.