Most crimes are charged as state crimes and are prosecuted in state court. However, the federal government can also charge and prosecute someone for a crime in federal court. This begs the question: if you commit a crime in North Carolina, where will your case be prosecuted?
Here, we briefly discuss the difference between state and federal crimes and give some examples of when a crime will be prosecuted in federal court.
What is A State Crime?
Most crimes committed in North Carolina will be prosecuted in state court. They involve local victims and local defendants; therefore, local resources are used to bring the case to trial. These crimes are prosecuted under laws that are unique to the state, and the penalties are unique to the state, too. Generally, examples of common state crimes include traffic offenses, murder, DWI, and assault.
What is A Federal Crime?
Crimes that involve multiple states or that are specifically labeled as federal crimes (for instance, acts of terrorism, mail fraud, or transporting controlled substances across state lines) will be prosecuted in federal court. Since these cases are usually complex and involve multiple jurisdictions, more expansive federal resources are used to investigate and bring the case to trial. Federal crimes are prosecuted under federal laws, regardless of the state in which the crime was committed. Punishment is determined by federal law, as well.
How Does A State Crime Become A Federal Crime?
While some crimes are strictly state or federal, often, a crime can fall under either jurisdiction. So how does a crime become a federal crime?
First, federal prosecutors will work with state prosecutors to determine who will prosecute the case. Federal prosecutors generally choose when they want to take on a case, and the state will defer and dismiss the state charge. Common examples of cases where the federal prosecutors will step in and take the case over from the state prosecutors include:
- Crimes (such as drug trafficking) where interstate commerce was involved.
- Crimes (such as a murder for hire) where there was criminal activity across multiple states.
- Crimes that occurred on federal property.
Although very rare, nothing prevents the state from also prosecuting most of these cases, too. Double jeopardy, which prohibits a person from being tried more than once for the same crime in the same jurisdiction, typically does not apply, because federal court is a separate jurisdiction from state court.
What Are the Consequences of A Criminal Case Moving to A Federal Court?
Just as a federal crime will be prosecuted in federal court, when it comes to sentencing, federal sentencing guidelines will be applied. Unfortunately for defendants who find themselves in federal court, federal sentencing guidelines are generally much harsher than state ones for the same or similar crimes. Defendants in federal court will receive sentences based on strict mandatory minimums.
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