By: Mark Diaz
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What Determines Whether A Crime Is Prosecuted By The State Or Federally?
When you have been arrested or indicted for a crime, the distinction between state and federal charges is probably not the first thing on your mind. Article 1 of the US Constitution empowers the Legislative Branch to enact criminal statutes, and Congress has passed hundreds of laws that fall under US Code Title 18 Crimes.
However, the Tenth Amendment also provides that certain powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states. Texas lawmakers have been exercising these powers since becoming a state in 1845, enacting numerous provisions within the Texas Penal Code. As a result, there are two separate criminal systems at the federal and state level.
It is critical that to understand the basic differences if you were charged with a crime. Though some fundamental and constitutional concepts are similar, many other laws and procedural rules are distinct when comparing Texas state law and federal law. Fortunately, you can count on a federal criminal defense lawyer to handle the details. As a summary, you might also benefit from reviewing some information on what determines whether a crime is prosecuted by the state or federally.
Factors That Impact Federal Versus State Crimes
The umbrella of federal jurisdiction is comparatively small when you consider that most crimes are prosecuted under Texas laws, and the state employs its general police power to enforce them. However, you could face federal charges in certain circumstances:
Violations of a Federal Statute
The US Code on Crimes and Criminal Procedure includes over one hundred chapters that each cover offenses deemed illegal at the federal level. These crimes range from assault, homicide, drug offenses, theft, and sex crimes. A violation of any of these statutes can lead to federal charges.
Offenses on Federal Property
Even a crime that would normally be a violation of state law can become a federal offense when the misconduct takes place on US property, including a building, structure, land, or other real estate. The definition encompasses all properties owned by the federal government, as well as those under lease or otherwise occupied. Examples include:
- US Post Offices, courthouses, and administrative buildings;
- Parks, recreational facilities, conservation areas, and historical landmarks;
- Military bases and recruitment centers;
- Tribal lands;
- Many more.
In addition, a crime that would typically be handled at the state level rises to a federal offense if the misconduct involves an agent of the US government. For instance, the federal government may pursue assault against an FBI agent.
Fraud Against the US Government
The general definition of fraud is the misappropriation of property or something of value through the use of false or misleading statements. You could be charged with a federal crime for making fraudulent statements in connection with:
- Filing an income tax return.
- Billing for Medicaid
- Applying for Social Security disability benefits.
- Fraud in connection with government contracts.
- Misrepresentation in applying for federal student loans.
One example of fraud against the US government has been prominent in the news recently: Misrepresentations related to the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), which was established to provide financial assistance to businesses suffering from COVID-19 related losses. Some estimates indicate that approximately $76 billion of the $800 billion in loan funds may be fraudulent, and you can be sure that authorities will fight hard for a conviction.
Activities Crossing State Lines
A crime may be a federal offense when the suspect physically travels across state lines in the commission of an offense. Transporting stolen property or a kidnap victim from Texas to any other state could trigger charges. In addition, the conduct itself may lead to an arrest by federal officials, even if the individual stayed put the entire time. The most common examples include:
- Wire, phone, and internet fraud that do not involve the US government.
- Use of the US Post Office to commit an offense.
- Securities and commodities fraud.
- Pyramid and “Ponzi” schemes.
Who Pursues US and Texas Criminal Charges?
It may also help you understand the difference between federal and state criminal cases by knowing what agencies may be involved in a case:
- Federal Crimes: A person may be investigated by almost any division under the US Department of Justice (DOJ), including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and Homeland Security. Cases are prosecuted by lawyers from the US Attorney’s Office.
- Texas Offenses: Law enforcement officers at the state, county, and local level will pursue violations of Texas law, including the Texas Department of Safety and its team of Texas Rangers. County sheriffs and city police officers may also be involved in investigations and arrests for criminal offenses. The Texas Attorney General prosecutes these cases through county and district attorneys.
Keep in mind that your constitutional rights remain in effect regardless of whether the charges are stated versus federal. This means that the prosecutor must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to each element of a crime. Protections against unlawful search and seizure and self-incrimination remain the same under both systems, and you still have the right to counsel.
Overview of Criminal Penalties and Sentencing
Aside from knowing what constitutes a federal or state crime, it is also helpful to understand how the two systems approach punishment after a conviction. Texas law classifies offenses as misdemeanor or felony. Punishment for State cases works as follows:
- The lowest level offense is a Class C Misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine but no jail time.
- A conviction for a Class B Misdemeanor could lead to a sentence up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.
- For a Class A Misdemeanor, the max punishment is one year in jail, a maximum fine of $4,000, or both.
- The lowest level felony is a State Jail Felony. Punishment for a conviction could mean no less than 180 days and up to 2 years in a State Jail.
- If convicted of a Third-Degree Felony, you face anywhere from 2 to 10 years in prison; the mandatory minimum for a Second-Degree Felony is no less than 2 years and no more than 20 years.
- For a conviction on First-Degree Felony charges, the punishment range is 5 to 99 years in prison.
- The most serious crimes in Texas are Capital Felonies, which typically include the murder of multiple persons or other very violent offenses. The mandatory sentence for a conviction is prescribed at life or the death penalty.
Federal Sentencing Guidelines
Punishment in a US criminal case runs according to this system, a set of rules that aims to create uniformity when federal judges issue sentences. Judges are required to review certain factors, but they are not required to follow the federal sentencing guidelines. A federal criminal defense lawyer can explain the implications of all seven factors, but the key guidelines include:
- The nature of the crime, along with the defendant’s history.
- How the penalties would serve the purposes of sentencing, i.e., retribution, deterring future crime, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.
- The types of sentencing available, such as probation and mandatory minimums.
Protect Your Rights When Facing Criminal Charges
You can count on your federal criminal defense lawyer to tackle the legal concepts and challenges, but it is important to realize how your own actions can support your defense. No matter whether you were arrested for a state or federal crime, some tips may be useful:
- Make it a priority to contact an attorney, from the moment of your arrest or when you believe you are being investigated.
- Never make statements to police or answer questions, even if you want to profess your innocence. You have the right to remain silent despite pressures from law enforcement.
- Do not, under any circumstances, resist arrest. You could face additional and more severe charges for assaulting an officer.
- Treat the judge with respect and always be polite when addressing the court.
Contact a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer for Additional Details
It is helpful to review some basics on what determines whether a crime is prosecuted by the state or federally, but there are many additional details involved with these cases. Therefore, one of the most important to-do’s after an arrest is retaining a skilled attorney for assistance with your defense. If you are facing federal charges, it is equally critical that you work with a lawyer who has extensive experience in the US criminal court system.
Our team at the Law Offices of Criminal Defense Attorney Mark Diaz is prepared to handle both federal and state criminal matters. We have spent significant time prosecuting these cases, and we now apply our trial advocacy skills and legal knowledge to defending clients throughout Galveston County and Greater Houston. Please call (409) 515-6170 to set up a free initial consultation with a Texas federal criminal defense attorney today.