NC State Criminal Charges vs. Federal Charges – What are the differences?

If you are charged with a crime in North Carolina, your case could be heard in state court or federal court. Which court has jurisdiction depends on how your crime is charged. What is the difference between a state and a federal crime? 

Here is a quick overview.

State Criminal Charges 

State crimes are most common. Prosecuted in state court, state criminal charges involve local defendants and victims. Because the crimes are committed in North Carolina, the crime is prosecuted according to state law and subject to the penalties North Carolina has established for the crime. Generally, state crimes are less serious than federal crimes and include things like driving while intoxicated, drug possession, or theft.  

Federal Criminal Charges

Federal crimes are prosecuted by the federal government. Typically, these crimes do not just occur in one state but involve multiple states. Because laws vary from state to state, crimes that could be subject to the laws of more than one jurisdiction will be charged as federal crimes and therefore, subject to federal law and federal sentencing guidelines. Federal crimes include acts where interstate commerce was involved, where the criminal activity occurred across multiple states, or crimes on federal property.

When there is a question as to whether a crime should be charged as a federal crime or a state crime, generally federal prosecutors will decide whether to take the case or if the state court is more appropriate. Drug trafficking, for instance, could be charged as a state crime or a federal crime. Whether a crime is charged as a state or federal crime depends on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding the crime. However, it is possible for both the state and federal governments to prosecute because double jeopardy does not apply since the jurisdiction, laws, and punishments differ from federal court to state court. 

Why Does it Matter?

Federal sentencing guidelines are much harsher than state punishments. Often, federal court means strict mandatory minimum sentences. Unlike state charges which will be prosecuted in the county where the crime occurred, federal charges will be charged in one of three federal district courts in the state: Western, Middle, or Eastern. This means a federal charge may have a traveling requirement for court appearances and could mean you are imprisoned far away from your family instead of locally for convenient visits. 

If you are charged with a crime, it is important to contact an experienced attorney immediately, but this is especially important if you are charged with a federal crime. Federal charges come with a higher likelihood of conviction. The federal government has access to more resources than the state, which means prosecution is easy. You need a defense attorney who knows how to navigate the complex, harsh process of federal court with a proven record of delivering an exceptional defense for even the toughest cases.