October 20, 2018

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What’s the Difference Between State and Federal Crimes

Dog Fighting

If you have been accused of a crime, you may soon find yourself in an extremely stressful situation, rife with complex questions related to jurisdiction. Jurisdiction refers to the authority of a court to hear a case, and it is determined by the type of crime committed in addition to a number of other factors.

Your case might end up in a state court or, less likely, you might wind up in the federal court system. Even rarer is a situation where you are tried by both federal and state courts, or even two state courts.

This happened to former Eagles player, Michael Vick, who ran an illegal canine fighting ring in several states. He was first tried by the federal government and sentenced to 23 months in prison. He was then tried in a Virginia court, where his attorneys attempted to argue that his trial could not go forward since he had already been convicted. The prosecutors shot down that argument, pointing out the fact that double jeopardy did not apply. To understand Michael Vick’s situation, it’s important to understand the differences between state and federal crimes.

Double Jeopardy

First, you may have noticed, above, the phrase, double jeopardy, which as you might know, was the title of a 90s crime thriller. You may even know – if you saw the movie – that double jeopardy means a person can’t be tried for the same crime twice. What you may not know is that double jeopardy doesn’t apply across different sovereignties. Put another way, a person can be tried twice for the same crime as long as each trial occurs in separate sovereign bodies. Thus, the federal government and the Virginia state government can both pursue charges for the same crime without violating double jeopardy because they’re different sovereign entities. This is known as dual sovereignty.

State Jurisdiction Usually Applies

But how can a federal court and a state court both have jurisdiction in Michael Vick’s case? This brings us to a complicated web of questions surrounding jurisdiction. In most cases, state courts are able to try individuals without the intervention of the federal government. This is why a huge majority of inmates in this country are imprisoned in state facilities. Crimes often fall under state jurisdiction because states have the right to enforce their laws. That means crimes committed by state residents – such as burglary, domestic disputes, traffic violations – are pursued by state courts, or the municipal courts within the state judicial system.

Federal Jurisdiction, Broadly Speaking

Federal courts, by contrast, cover specific types of crimes and legal questions. Those include: US Constitutional and federal statutory violations, certain crimes occurring across state lines, civil suits involving the US government and a specific set of laws that fall under federal jurisdiction – these are copyright, patent, bankruptcy and maritime law. In addition, crimes committed on federal property belong to federal jurisdiction.


Of course, sometimes a single crime violates both state and federal laws. What happens in this situation? Well, as we’ve seen, charges can be pursued in both jurisdictions. Alternatively, a choice must be made.

There are a number of factors that influence this decision. For one, if a federal officer made the arrest, the person will most likely be tried in a federal court. For instance, if a person is picked up by a DEA officer during a major drug bust, the resultant trial will likely occur in federal jurisdiction. The same goes for anyone picked up by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, IRS and any other federal agency. These agencies often pursue a person, or group of people, who have allegedly violated laws pertaining to drug trafficking, immigration, white collar crimes, organized crime, major weapons charges, fraud and other crimes that imply the crossing of state boundaries.

In general, though, if a crime occurs within state borders, state jurisdiction will apply, unless the crime is specifically defined as a federal violation.

Certain Civil Cases

In some cases, a state resident can pursue civil claims in both a federal and state court. For instance, the federal government has instituted laws protecting against age-based discrimination, and many state governments have followed suit. Someone who wants to pursue this type of discrimination claim can choose whether they want to pursue claims in their state court or in the federal court – or in both if they prefer.

Ultimately, state courts take the brunt of legal labor, having to deal with a total of 30,000,000 case files every year. By contrast, the federal court system must deal with 1,000,000. This might explain why there are nearly 2 million people in state and local prisons, and 225,000 people in federal facilities.

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including AccidentAttorneys.org, PersonalInjury.com, AmericanLegalNews.com and others.