A Federal Crimes Primer

Most crimes are defined by state law, which means that when a person is accused of committing a criminal act, he or she will face prosecution in a state court. Sometimes, however, a criminal suspect may face charges in federal court. When this happens, the charges are generally regarded as being more serious, and a different set of laws, procedures and potential consequences will apply.

State Vs. Federal Crimes

Most crimes are defined by state law rather than federal law. For example, both robbery and murder are illegal in every state, but in most cases do not violate federal law. Thus, a person arrested for robbing a convenience store in Illinois will most likely be charged with violating Illinois law and prosecuted in an Illinois court. If, however, that individual robbed a bank rather than a convenience store, he or she could face charges in federal court because there is a federal law making it illegal to rob a bank that is secured by a federal agency, as most banks are.

Similarly, a person accused of murdering a convenience store clerk in Illinois would most likely be prosecuted in Illinois court because murder is usually a matter of state law. On the other hand, someone accused of murdering an FBI agent in Illinois may be charged in federal court because U.S. statute makes it a crime to murder a federal official.

There are many other circumstances in which a person may face charges in the federal criminal justice system. For example, certain crimes like mail fraud or manufacturing child pornography are always in violation of federal law regardless of the specific circumstances involved.

In other cases, an otherwise state-level offense can be elevated to a federal crime if takes place across lines. For example, although theft of property is usually a matter of state law, it may be treated as a federal offense if it involves the transportation of stolen goods from one state to another. Another situation that can result in federal criminal charges is when an illegal act occurs on federally owned land, such as a national park.

Types Of Federal Crimes: Felonies And Misdemeanors

Much like crimes at the state level, federal crimes are grouped into two main categories: misdemeanors and felonies. A misdemeanor is an offense for which the maximum prison sentence that may be imposed is one year or less. A felony, on the other hand, carries a maximum potential prison sentence of more than one year. Especially with felonies, the range of possible penalties can vary greatly within each category depending on the specific offense and the circumstances involved.

A criminal case may end up in federal court if it involves an alleged violation of a federal criminal statute. For example, although someone who robs a convenience store is likely to be charged only with a state-level offense, someone who robs a bank may be charged with a federal offense. This is because there is a federal law making it a crime to rob a bank that is secured by a federal agency, as most banks are.

Other examples of federal crimes include:

Along with those listed here, there are many other criminal offenses defined by federal law.

Double Jeopardy And Dual Sovereignty

In most cases, but not all, an act that can be prosecuted in federal court is also regarded as a crime according to the laws of the state where it occurs. For example, possession of a controlled substance such as cocaine or methamphetamine is a violation of not only Illinois statute but also federal law. Thus, the person accused of committing the offense may be charged in either state or federal court, or sometimes even in both.

Many people are familiar with the constitutional protection against double jeopardy, which is provided for in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This provision generally protects a person from being charged again for the same offense after he or she has been convicted or acquitted of it once. The purpose of double jeopardy protection is to prevent prosecutors from charging a defendant multiple times for the same event in an effort to secure a different result.

When a person's conduct constitutes a criminal offense under both state and federal law, however, the protection against double jeopardy does not apply. Instead, these circumstances trigger a legal principle called the dual sovereignty doctrine, which provides that a single act can be treated as two separate offenses when it violates the laws of two distinct sovereignties, or governing bodies. Thus, when an act violates the laws of both the state and federal government, it can potentially be charged at both levels.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

One of the most significant ways that federal criminal prosecutions differ from those at the state level is with regard to sentencing. When a person is convicted of a crime in federal court, he or she will often face far more severe penalties than those that may apply for a similar offense in state court, whether in Illinois or elsewhere.

The penalties for conviction of a crime in federal court are determined largely by the United States Sentencing Guidelines. From 1987 until 2005, federal judges were required by law to issue sentences according to those guidelines, which provide a range of possible sentences for a particular offense. In 2005, however, the United States Supreme Court ruled that those guidelines are advisory rather than binding.

This means that judges have more discretion to depart from the guidelines in consideration of the relevant factors, such as the nature and circumstances of the offense as well as the defendant's character and criminal history.

In addition, judges who wish to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines must consider whether the sentence is needed to:

  • Reflect the seriousness of the offense.
  • Encourage respect for the law.
  • Provide adequate punishment for the offense.
  • Deter others from engaging in similar unlawful conduct.
  • Protect the public from future crimes by the defendant.
  • Provide the defendant with rehabilitative opportunities, such as medical care and educational or vocational training.

Although judges now have more freedom to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines than they once did, they are still bound by certain restrictions. Not only must a judge explain his or her reasons for departing from sentencing guidelines, but the sentence imposed must also be reasonable. A sentence that is found to be unreasonable can be overturned on appeal.

In addition, for many federal offenses, judges must ensure that the sentences they impose are in compliance with statutory minimum sentencing requirements. These mandatory minimums apply to drug crimes and a variety of other federal offenses.

Timeline Of A Federal Criminal Case

A federal criminal case can take months or even years from beginning to end, and involves many different steps and court appearances. Key among these include:

  • Initial appearance. Shortly after arrest, the accused person will be given the opportunity to go before a magistrate judge to be advised of his or her rights and address matters of legal representation. At this time, the magistrate judge will also set the conditions of release, including bail, and the prosecutor may ask that the accused individual be detained.
  • Detention hearing. If the person facing charges has been detained, a detention hearing must occur within three working days. At this hearing, the magistrate judge will decide whether the accused person should be detained or released before trial, based on evidence regarding the individual's flight risk and the danger he or she may pose to the community.
  • Preliminary hearing. In most cases, a preliminary hearing will occur within 10 days after arrest. At this hearing, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney may present evidence to the magistrate judge, who will decide whether there is probable cause for the case to move forward. Sometimes, however, probable cause is determined by a grand jury prior to arrest, in which case a preliminary hearing is not necessary.
  • Arraignment. At an arraignment, the defendant is read the charges and advised of his or her rights, and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the defendant pleads not guilty, his or her defense lawyer may negotiate with prosecutors for a plea agreement prior to trial.
  • Trial. Unless a plea agreement is reached, trial must occur within 70 days of from the defendant's initial appearance in federal court. At trial, both prosecutors and the defendant's attorney will present evidence and call witnesses. Afterward, a jury will determine whether the charges were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant is found not guilty, he or she will be released; if the jury returns a guilty verdict, the case will continue to sentencing.
  • Sentencing. Several weeks after a defendant has been convicted or entered a guilty plea, sentencing will take place. Depending on the circumstances of the case, the sentence may include monetary fines, imprisonment in a federal facility and/or probation, which is also known as supervised release. In some cases, the defendant may also be ordered to pay restitution to the victims of certain crimes.

After sentencing, the defendant may have the option of filing an appeal, which means asking a higher court to review the outcome of the case. Usually, both the verdict and the sentence may be appealed. However, the defendant's right to appeal may be limited in whole or in part by pleading guilty or entering a plea agreement.

Contact A Lawyer For Help When Facing Criminal Charges

Any time a person is arrested or accused of a crime, whether at the state or federal level, it is very important that he or she seek help from a criminal defense lawyer. An attorney with a background in criminal defense can help clients understand and protect their legal rights, as well as explain the various options that are available for handling the situation. However the client wishes to move forward with the case, a defense lawyer can be a powerful advocate for his or her interests at every stage of the process.