Facing federal charges can be intimidating, but it is a myth that they are always more serious than state or local charges. Federal charges and sentences can be much more severe than those at the state or local level, but the opposite can also be true.
Both New York and New York City differ from US law in the way they classify, treat and prosecute crimes.
How is the process different for federal charges?
As the Offices of the United States Attorneys explain, federal law enforcement officials may arrest someone if they have a warrant or criminal complaint for an alleged federal offense. State or local officials can also make an arrest and then turn the detainee over to federal authorities. For some crimes, a defendant may face both state and federal charges.
Facing federal charges can be a similar experience to facing state charges in New York as both require indictment from a grand jury for felony crimes. However, the timing and process of federal cases is subject to different rules and terminology.
Federal attorneys typically defer to state courts to prosecute most crimes since the legal process can be lengthy and expensive. They tend to intervene only in very serious cases or when the evidence appears strongly in their favor. For this reason, defenses in federal cases need to be especially well-prepared and solid.
Are federal laws more strict than state or local laws?
As a general rule, federal law applies throughout the US, so state laws cannot override or nullify federal laws in most cases. Because of this, states and municipalities tend to use federal law as a baseline from which to build more specific — and often stricter — laws.
For example, with some exceptions, federal law prohibits those under 18 years from purchasing firearms, but New York generally requires that gun purchasers and owners be at least 21 years of age.
In other cases, however, state and local governments do not recognize crimes that the federal government recognizes. One clear example of this is the different ways that states classify or do not classify marijuana on state drug schedules while the Drug Enforcement Agency considers it a Schedule I substance. In short, federal laws can be stricter in some cases and more lenient in others.
Are federal sentences more severe?
Similarly, states have their own set of sentencing guidelines and requirements for crimes. A federal sentence may be harsher than a state sentence for the same crime, but the opposite can also be true.
Knowing the law concerning charges and sentencing guidelines before building a defense can help defendants anticipate possible hurdles and opportunities.