Criminal Defense in the Federal System

Litigating our clients’ cases is vastly different in federal court than it is in state court. California state courts use the California penal code as a basis for its procedure, while federal courts use the United States code.  As a result, federal crimes are an entirely different set of offenses than state crimes. A federal criminal defense requires an experienced litigator an a custom legal strategy.

Federal Criminal Defense Law Firm

When is a crime considered a federal offense?

By definition, a crime is any action or act or omission considered injurious to public welfare, morals or the interests of another party. These are offenses that are legally prohibited and punishable by law. Crimes can be prosecuted by the state, the federal government, or both. But what distinguishes when a crime is a state offense or a federal offense? Is one more serious than the other?

Let’s start with the severity of a crime. Simply because a crime is prosecuted at the federal level, doesn’t automatically make it a more serious or worse crime. For example, a murder charge at the state level and mail fraud charge at the federal level are two very different offenses, the first of which clearly has more devastating consequences.

While the severity of a crime is not the distinguishing factor, it can affect whether or not a crime is prosecuted at a federal level. When we look at the charge of murder, it is always considered a violation of state law but there are times when federal charges may also be filed. Examples include cases where the victim is a member of the US military, a federal official, an ambassador, consul or other foreign official under the protection of the United States; when murder involves crossing state lines; when murder is committed by a federal prisoner; or when a murder occurred during the commission of some other federal crime such as kidnapping or human trafficking. All of these situations also apply to other violent offenses such as rape and criminal assault.

Another example of when the severity of a crime can affect whether both state and federal charges can be applied is drug offenses. Each individual state has different laws regarding the usage and distribution of illegal substances. What may be legal in one state, for example the usage of marijuana, may not be against the law in another. All drug charges are not created equal but technically speaking, most drug charges are considered a violation of federal law under the Controlled Substances Act (USC Title 21). Whether or not there are federal charges applied depends upon several factors such as the agency who made the arrest (was it a local police officer or a federal agency?), was the offense committed in conjunction with another federal crime, the criminal history of the offender, whether the crime involved crossing state lines or if the crime can be considered a violation of federal drug trafficking laws.  Ultimately a crime is considered a federal offense when it violates a criminal law under the United States code. These laws set out strict sentencing guidelines which are uniform to all 50 states. Federal courts are generally involved in cases when one or more of the following apply:


  • The United States is a party in the crime, including offenses that cross state lines;
  • There is an act of bankruptcy fraud, mail or wire fraud, attempts to violate federal tax laws, copyright or patent violations;
  • There is a violation of the US constitution, civil rights, maritime laws or specific federal laws.

Although the general principles of criminal defense are the same for state and federal crimes, the procedures and rules are quite different. Federal sentencing guidelines include 43 different offense levels, 4 sentencing zones which relate to the length of a sentence, and 6 criminal history categories (each of which is associated with a range of criminal history points). These guidelines are all taken in to consideration when length of sentencing is applied. If you have been charged with a federal crime, it is imperative to select a federal criminal defense attorney who is knowledgeable and experienced with federal laws and sentencing procedures.

State and Federal Charges

But what happens if you are facing charges on both the state and federal level?

One option is to hire two different attorneys to handle each case – one who knows the laws of your state and one who knows the federal laws which apply.

However, the best course of action is to hire one attorney who is licensed to practice in both state and federal courts. A lawyer licensed in both courts make things easier for you because details are shared with a single lawyer (or law firm). Most importantly, an attorney who can represent you in both courts will be able to defend you more efficiently and effectively. For example, they can schedule hearings between the courts, leveraging one over the other so that your state case is settled first. An attorney who understands the complexities of both sets of laws can defend or plea bargain your state case before the federal one. This is extremely important because your state criminal history will be taken in to consideration when it comes to the points assigned under the federal sentencing guidelines.


If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal crime, call to talk with a skilled criminal defense lawyer today: 619-363-1405 or email us at