What Is the Difference Between a State and Federal Crime?

Understanding Jurisdiction and Sovereignty at the State and Federal Level

A person can be charged for a state crime, a federal crime, or both. Most crimes are prosecuted at the state level and are handled through municipal and county district courts.

Certain crimes, however, may be prosecuted at the federal level. For instance, offenses that are committed on federal property, violate the Constitution or an Act of Congress, or involve interstate commerce may all be prosecuted at the federal level.

Furthermore, there are certain crimes which can be charged at both the state and federal level.

Determining Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction is the right or power that a court has to hear a case. A federal court has jurisdiction over a number of different cases, including crimes that are committed on federal property, those involving interstate commerce, and when there is a Constitutional violation, congressional act, or it can be established that there is a sufficient nexus between the act and the federal government.

State vs. Federal Investigations

State crimes are investigated by local law enforcement, including county sheriff agencies, local police departments, and state patrols. Federal crimes are investigated by a multitude of different agencies, including:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Postal Service
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement

In many cases, multiple agencies will work in coordination with each other to investigate a crime.

State vs. Federal Prosecutions

State crimes are turned over to a County District Attorney for prosecution. In Houston, state crimes are prosecuted by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. Criminal matters are heard in municipal or county district courts, depending on the case. Federal crimes are turned over to the United States Department of Justice and prosecuted by United States Attorneys. Matters are heard in United States District Courts.

In Houston, federal cases are heard out of the Southern District of Texas. It is vital to understand that state and federal crimes are handled differently. There are specific court procedures that differ depending on where your case is being heard. You will want to retain an attorney who is familiar with both the state and federal courts and their unique processes.

Hire an Experienced State and Federal Defense Attorney

A criminal charge for a state crime is entirely independent of a federal offense, even if it is for the same or similar act. It is essential to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney that practices out of both state and federal courts. 

Attorney James Alston is a former state and federal prosecutor. After eight years as a state prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, he was hired as an Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the Organized Crime Drug Task Force. Now, as a board-certified criminal law attorney, he is recognized as one of Houston’s leading defense attorneys. Mr. Alston fights hard to protect the rights and the future of his clients.

Contact James Alston Law today at (713) 228-1400 to schedule a consultation and get the solutions you need.