The State of Texas has a broad “police power” to define and punish crimes as it sees fit. This is why most criminal charges end up in state court. Federal crimes, in contrast, are restricted to offenses that fall within a specific power granted to the federal government by the United States Constitution.
Actually, the Constitution only expressly defines three federal crimes: treason, piracy on the high seas, and counterfeiting. However, Congress may define and punish other crimes that fall within another grant of legislative power. Here are just a few examples:
- Congress has the right to regulate criminal activities that may occur in federal buildings or on federal lands, such as national parks.
- Congress has the right to regulate customs and may punish people who try to import goods–or even persons–into the country illegally.
- Similarly, Congress has the exclusive right to regulate immigration, so any criminal offenses associated with being an undocumented person may end up in federal court.
- Congress has the broad power to regulate “interstate commerce,” which means any crime that crosses state lines or involves the use of interstate networks, including the highway system, the Postal Service, or the Internet, can be prosecuted at the federal level.
Aside from the different types of offenses involved, there are also a number of key differences in how federal criminal cases are prosecuted. In Texas, prosecutors and judges are elected by the people to serve fixed terms. In the federal system, the President hires and fires federal prosecutors–known as United States Attorneys–and appoints federal judges with the consent of the Senate. Additionally, while state crimes are typically investigated by local police or sheriff’s departments, federal investigations often fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, DEA, or another federal agency.
As noted above, federal crimes often typically carry harsher penalties for a conviction that similar state-level offenses. It is actually quite a bit more involved than that. While the Texas Penal Code provides fairly clear guidance as to the range of criminal sentences, in the federal system judges rely on a complex set of “sentencing guidelines” when determining an individual defendant’s sentence. Having an experienced federal criminal defense attorney during this process can often make a significant difference in the final sentencing.
One final thing to note: It is possible to be charged in both federal and state court for the same underlying criminal act. While not a common occurrence, such “double” prosecutions do not technically violate the Constitution. It is unconstitutional to place a person in “jeopardy” twice for the same crime. But the Courts have long held that the State of Texas and the federal government are “separate sovereigns” for purposes of this double-jeopardy rule.