State vs. Federal Criminal Prosecutions

The vast majority of criminal prosecutions take place in state courts. The sections below highlight some of the key differences between state and federal criminal systems:

Jurisdiction, The Power to Hear and Decide Cases

A state has power over defendants who violate the laws of that state—the power to arrest, charge, try, and convict them. The federal government has power over defendants who commit criminal acts on federal property (for example, an assault in a national park) or whose criminal acts cross state lines (for example, a kidnapper who transports a victim from Iowa to Missouri). The federal government also has jurisdiction over a group of federally defined crimes such as offenses related to immigration fraud and U.S. customs violations.

A state and the federal government can have “concurrent” power over a defendant when the same criminal activity violates both state and federal laws (for example, selling drugs or robbing banks). In those situations, state and federal prosecutors make case-by-case decisions as to whether a defendant will be prosecuted in state or federal court.

Police Officers

Typical state police officers are county sheriffs and city police officers. Typical federal police officers are agents of the FBI and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration).


Federal criminal prosecutions are handled by U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by and ultimately responsible to the U.S. Attorney General. State prosecutors, many of whom are elected on a countywide basis, carry a variety of titles; common ones are district attorney, state’s attorney, and city attorney.

Defense Attorneys

Most criminal defendants qualify for government-paid defense attorneys. Government-paid attorneys are usually employed either by an office of the Federal Public Defender or a county’s Public Defender office, although localities in some states maintain a list of private attorneys, paid by the government, in place of an office of public defenders. If a public defender office cannot handle the case due to insufficient staffing, or because the office already represents a co-defendant, the court will appoint a private attorney, often called a “panel attorney,” who is paid by the court to represent the defendant.

Trial Courts

Most federal criminal prosecutions occur in United States District Courts. State courts carry such titles as “superior court,” “municipal court,” “police court,” or “county court,” depending on the state and the seriousness of criminal charges.


Federal trial judges are known as District Court judges, they are appointed for life by the president, subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. State court judges are typically initially appointed by governors and then are subject to election every few years. State court trial judges carry titles such as Superior Court Judge, Municipal Court Judge, and (in New York) Supreme Court Judge. In both state and federal courts, magistrates may preside over pretrial hearings such as bail hearings, as well as less serious criminal trials.

All-Purpose vs. Specialized Judges

Federal courts use the “all-purpose judge” system. This means that the same judge almost always presides over a case from beginning to end— that is, from a defendant’s first court appearance to final acquittal or sentencing. Some states also follow the all-purpose judge model. In many states, however, judges are specialized. For example, one judge may determine bail, another judge may hear pretrial motions, and a third judge may preside over a trial.

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