(Last Updated On: March 20, 2023)

It can be very challenging when it comes to an understanding the difference between state and federal cases. From jurisdictional issues to investigation and procedural techniques, each type of case is presented with a unique set of challenges. And you need the best criminal defense lawyer who can handle these situations with in-depth knowledge.

In this article, we will examine the main distinctions between state and federal criminal defense cases and offer advice on handling these difficulties successfully.

Definition of State and Federal Criminal Defense

A state criminal defence refers to the charges brought under a state’s laws against a person. Murder, robbery, drug possession, and traffic offenses are examples of state crimes.

On the other hand, federal criminal defense is the charges brought under federal law against a person such as the FBI or DEA. Examples are drug possession, drug trafficking, bank robbery, etc. 

Differences Between State and Federal Criminal Defense Cases

There are 3 main differences between state and federal criminal defense cases. Here we discussed each difference in detail so that you can understand easily. 

Jurisdictional Difference

The jurisdiction is one of the most significant differences between state and federal criminal prosecutions. In general, jurisdiction establishes the limitations on the matters that a court wants to hear.

  • Crimes committed within a state are subject to state court jurisdiction, but crimes committed outside state borders or on the federal territory are subject to federal court jurisdiction.
  • State prosecutions focus on local crimes, but federal cases involve crimes that have a national impact or involve federal agencies.
  • Defendants in federal crimes face more severe sentences than state crimes. Federal charges include high fines and long prison sentences.

Investigative Difference

Another significant factor that separates the state from federal criminal defense cases is the investigative difference. Law enforcement authorities are normally responsible for investigating a crime.

Depending on whether the case is a state or federal affair, these agencies use different resources and investigative techniques.

Role of Grand Jury

  • For federal cases, a group of citizens as grand juries review the evidence and determine what charges will be imposed against a suspect. Grand juries do not review the evidence in state cases.
  • Grand juries proceeding are not open to the public. Rather, the proceeding is often held behind closed doors to make the investigation process more private and less transparent than the state cases.

Law Enforcement Agencies

  • State and local law enforcement investigate the state cases. They are police departments and state bureaus of investigation. 
  • Federal law enforcement agencies investigate federal cases, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Available Resources

  • State and local law enforcement organizations need more specialized equipment. On the other hand, federal law enforcement organizes a large budget and has access to advanced technology. 
  • Federal investigators may also have additional expertise and training in difficult cases, such as international narcotics trafficking, organized crime, or white-collar crime.

Procedural Difference

The procedural difference is another factor that distinguishes state and federal criminal defense cases. Different procedural rules may apply depending on whether the case is a state or federal matter, influencing lawyers’ defense strategies and techniques.

Arrest Procedures

  • While local police may be involved in a state arrest, many law enforcement organizations are involved in a federal arrest.
  • Different regulations may apply to bail and detention between state and federal cases. Federal bail/detention laws are often stricter than state laws. Also, federal defendants are more likely to be held without bail.

Pretrial Discovery Procedures

  • Pretrial motions are more common in federal trials. Moreover, the rules and regulations are more restrictive.
  • In federal cases, as opposed to state cases, the defense may need more access to information and evidence, making it harder to prepare a defense.

Trial Procedure

  • Federal trials are more structured than state trials. As for federal cases, the jury selection process is complex and provides strict rules of evidence to solve the case.
  • The judge has more control over the proceedings in a federal trial than in state trials. Therefore, there are few opportunities for the defense to challenge.

Sentencing Guidelines

  • State and federal prosecutions may have different sentencing criteria. Federal sentencing guidelines are hard to deal with since they are often stricter than state standards.
  • Also, state and federal court proceedings may have different appeals processes. State appeals may be confined to one level of review, but federal appeals involve multiple levels of review.


In conclusion, several significant differences between state and federal criminal defense cases may affect the defense approach employed by lawyers. To create a successful defense strategy for the clients, defense lawyers need to know the specifics of each type of case. A knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer can make all the difference in getting the best result for their client.