The Difference Between a Federal and State Criminal Case

For many of my clients facing federal charges I am handling their first federal case. For those clients with prior experience with the state justice system a federal case can be incredibly frustrating.

In a state case, a bond is set and if you can afford to pay you get out. A federal case has no bond to pay. You will have a hearing in which the government explains why you are dangerous, typically with information you and your attorney will hear for the first time, and the Judge will decide if you go home that day.

In a state case, getting evidence can be like pulling teeth and can take months or even years of work. In a federal case, you are buried in a mountain of evidence and have to dig through the mountain to find the relevant evidence. The agents have spent years of their lives on this evidence. They often know your life story and entire family tree.

Your federal lawyer cannot assume this mountain is all of the evidence. For example, I had a client who swore a report was wrong; the report said a recording existed and I had to ask for the recording in three different ways before I got it. I was able to show my client was right.

In a state case, a plea deal is for a specific punishment and if the Judge goes above that punishment you can take your guilty plea back and go to trial. In a state jury trial you can decide if you want to go to the Judge or the Jury for punishment.

In a federal case, the Judge decides the punishment at your sentencing hearing and you cannot take your guilty plea back. If you cooperate with the government you find out how much time off you have earned only a few days before your hearing.

Federal sentences are determined by sentencing guidelines. The guidelines are a point system. The offense level and criminal history points are used to give you a punishment range in months on the sentencing-table.  The offense level is based on the seriousness of your crime and the criminal history level is based on your past convictions.

A Pre-Sentence Report (“PSR”) will be written by a probation officer instructing the court what your punishment range is under the guidelines. Your attorney needs to pay close attention and make objections to get your punishment range as low as possible.

The guidelines are not mandatory and depending on your background, lawyer and Judge your actual sentence can end up being much lower or higher than your guideline range.

In the federal system and state system alike it is important to have an attorney who knows the Judges, the prosecutors, the court staff, and the local customs of the court. In both systems a conviction can have dire consequences on your freedom and can lead to deportation if you are not a citizen of the United States. You need a skilled, experienced attorney who will fight for you.