The Difference Between A State And Federal Crime Explained

Trouble with the law is trouble with the law, but here in the United States, there are varying degrees of both trouble and law. Being that we're a nation comprised of 50 different states which, according to the 10th Amendment to The Constitution, have a notable degree of autonomy that allows them to legislate on their own conditions, federal law is still part of the equation. If some of these terms aren't resonating with you, let's unpack them. 

Let's start with laymen's terms: "Federal" refers to a centralized form of government whose function is to collectivize state efforts and apply parameters that set boundaries yet don't violate The 10th Amendment (a state's right to act on its own terms). Ideally, the federal government can only enact a nationwide law if it has been funneled through both the House of Representatives and the Senate as a bill and, after being signed by the president, becomes an official law. Things have gotten a little foggy over the past few years with the accelerated use of executive orders, but that's the classroom summarization (via Diffen). It probably goes without saying that, as it stands, there are certain crimes that are fundamentally illegal across the union; ones that a state's right to choose its own legal paradigm cannot subvert. 

More about state crimes

The primary distinction here — as far as process of trial and conviction goes — is that state crimes are handled in a state court as opposed to a federal court. For instance, if you get caught drunk driving somewhere in Michigan, your first offense will put you in front of a local judge who will deliver a judgment based on rules of Michigan's state government. Whereas drunk driving is certainly illegal across the entire union, penalties and handling thereof are allotted to the states on their own individual terms (via Criminal Defense Lawyer). 

Theft, domestic violence, real estate fraud, sexual assault, and drug offenses are among those crimes that would be handled at a state level (per Sherick Law PC). It's interesting to see how things can vary from state to state. For instance, you might recall that Oregon just recently decriminalized all narcotics and drugs (in smaller amounts) across their borders. "It's clear that the current approach of arresting and jailing people for their drug addiction has failed, and that people realized that Measure 110 was ultimately about people, not drugs," Anthony Johnson, Oregon resident and petitioner for the bill shared following its passage (via Voices Rise Up). On the other hand, if you get caught with even a small amount of marijuana in the sate of Florida, you could be facing up to 20 years behind bars. Louisiana will even call on the federal government for repeated drug crimes (per Top Rehabs).

More about federal crimes

When you hear the term "felony" getting thrown around, you know that someone has done something pretty bad. If you're charged with a felony, be prepared to stand before a federal court where the penalties of your crime are far graver and are bound to stay on your record for some time to come. Whereas a misdemeanor — a lower-grade infraction that, in extreme cases, can carry up to a one year incarceration in a local jail — draws less harrowing consequences, felonies spell out longer prison sentences and more significant legal fees, among other unsavory punishments (via Criminal Defense Lawyer). 

Notable felonies include assault with a deadly weapon, murder, manslaughter, and felony DUI charges. Also, if someone gets arrested committing a certain crime across multiple state borders (drug trafficking, commercial fraud, etc.) or on federal property, then a federal crime is considered to have been committed. Neither federal not state law is permitted to contradict the rights or legislation within the U.S. Constitution (per HG Legal Resources). 

Penalties for committing a felony can vary. Sometimes, you could get the crime removed from your record in a matter of a few years or swing a reduced jail sentence. Other times, well... best get comfortable in that cell, because it could very well become your forever home if you commit the wrong crime. Take a look at some of the examples below that exemplify the nature of federal crimes and the spectrum of their punishments. 

Acts of Terrorism

Ever since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, terrorism has been at the forefront of federal concern. However, classification of an act of terrorism isn't restricted to the hijacking of an airplane by foreign entities. The FBI breaks down terrorism into two categories: domestic and international. International terrorism, according to their website, is denoted as "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored)." 

Domestic terrorism entails "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature" according to their site. Essentially, any major act of violence against a large group of people could qualify as an act of terrorism. The penalties can include a prison sentence of 20 years to life and, in extreme cases, a state-sanctioned death sentence (per Carmichael Ellis & Brock).

Federal Property crimes

If a crime is committed on or at federal land, it can be considered a felony. For instance, whereas drunk driving is generally handled at the state level until multiple offenses arise, if you get caught driving under the influence on federally owned land — a military base, for example — you could be charged with a felony. Vandalizing government buildings also qualifies as a Federal Property crime. Other plots of land that are federally owned include Indian reservations, national parks, and post offices (via Best Utah Lawyer). 

Depending on the severity of the infraction, you could be facing a hefty fine or a prison sentence. The United States Department of Justice Archives outlines some of the conditions that follow a Federal Property crime. If, for instance, you get busted busting up a monument outside of a police building, as long as the damages amount to less than $100, it's considered a misdemeanor. However, it still could carry a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. More severe violations could land you a $250,000 ticket and/or 10 years in prison.

Intentional Harm

This one sounds broad, but the degree of "intentional harm" that we're discussing has strict legal parameters that distinguish certain acts of violence as either a state or federal issue. If the victim or prospective victim of assault is a federally-employed individual, the act is considered a crime against the federal government and is therefore handled as a federal crime. Child abuse, child or human trafficking, and kidnapping are also handled at a federal level and carry severe consequences. Also, if multiple criminal acts that are generally considered state crimes are perpetrated in several different states — homicide for example — that person is placed before a federal judge and charged accordingly (per HG Legal Resources). 

There are multiple categories of intentional harm on a federal level, but let's consider kidnapping. According to Columbus Criminal Attorney and Ohio Revised Code section 2905.01, you could spend 15 years to life in prison for a first-degree kidnapping charge with up to $20,000 dollars in fines. Second-degree kidnapping charges could put you in jail for 10 years with $15,000 dollars in fines, but that's only if the victim is returned safely and hasn't been harmed. Both are considered felonies.