Criminal offenses are categorized as either state or federal offenses. The offense will likely be illegal at both state and federal level. This means that individuals can be prosecuted in both state and federal court for the same criminal act. While lawful, it is not practical that both governments would do so. Reasons include the time and expense of criminal prosecution, conserving judicial resources, and fundamental fairness. In any event, federal prosecutors are very selective of which cases to prosecute federally. Those that are not selected for federal criminal prosecution are left to the state criminal justice system to handle.
Typically, crimes that have been committed against a person, such as assault, rape, or murder face prosecution at the state level. However, there are certain instances where these offenses can be prosecuted in federal court is there is federal authority to do so. Examples include commission of any of these offenses on a military base or installation, or where the crime somehow affected interstate commerce, such as the crossing of state lines to commit the crime and more. Other offenses such as those involving drugs, exploitation of children, child pornography, fraud, firearms, and more are specifically outlawed by federal and state law, which is where prosecutorial discretion is often determinative of what court where these offenses are prosecuted.
Federal courts have a much narrowed jurisdiction than state courts. These courts only have authority to hear criminal cases in those limited areas where Congress had the authority to regulate and make criminal laws. Territorially speaking, however, federal courts have a broader scope of power than state courts. Where state courts can only adjudicate crimes committed within the territory of the state where the court is located, federal courts have authority over investigations and prosecutions for crimes that were committed in or out of your state or federal district, and often times, even beyond the borders of the United States.
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John L. Calcagni III is a former federal prosecutor. As a criminal defense lawyer, he offers his clients the many years of experience he has from handling cases in federal court both for the government and many defendants. If you are under investigation or have been charged with a crime in federal court, you want a lawyer with his knowledge and experience in your corner. Read more about Federal Defense.