State vs. Federal Court for Criminal Defense

When a potential client calls our firm and tells us they have been charged with a criminal offense, our first question is if the charge is for state or federal court. There have been several instances where we have even represented two individuals at the same time, charged with similar crimes. Although one is in federal court and the other client was charged in a state court of Texas.

It also happened very recently where we simultaneously represented a defendant charged with a child pornography offense in state court and also represented a defendant (actually he was the spouse of an FBI agent) charged with a child pornography offense in federal court.

1. Punishments Are Harsher in Federal Court for First Time Offenders

Often, the results for the defendants charged in state court are dramatically different than the results for the defendants charged in federal court. Indeed, it is not unusual for a defendant charged with a drug offense or child pornography offense in state court in Dallas County to be placed on probation and a defendant charged with the same or similar offense in federal court to be sentenced to ten years or more in prison!

Why is this? In state courts throughout Texas, regardless of the offense, a defendant can be placed on some type of community supervision. For example a defendant can commit murder and be placed on community supervision in state court. On the other hand, federal court sentencing is done under a system of guidelines that score a defendant’s offense and criminal history using a grid system. This grid system can lead to very harsh sentences even for first time offenders. Moreover, most drug offenses in federal court require “mandatory minimum” sentences under the federal, drug statutes. I recall representing a client charged with counterfeiting in federal court who faced a two year sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. His wife brought me a newspaper article about a murder defendant in state court being placed on probation and required me to explain the unfair differences between state court sentencing and federal court sentencing.

The difference from being charged in state court versus federal court is not only limited to the ultimate sentences imposed.

2. Limited Options in Federal Court for Dismissals or Winning a Trial

In many Texas counties, a defendant charged in state court can make a presentation to the grand jury in an attempt to convince the grand jury not to indict them in the first place. Such presentations cannot be made to federal grand juries and it is rare that a federal grand jury will refuse a prosecutor’s request to return an indictment.

Second, the chances of winning a case at trial or having the case dismissed prior to trial in state court can be significantly higher than in federal court. One reason is that the offenses prosecuted in state court are investigated by local police departments who are not nearly as well trained as federal agents who normally investigate the offenses prosecuted in federal court. Consequently, sometimes mistakes are made by the local police officers that can be used to a client’s advantage. In contrast, federal prosecutors tend to be more experienced and have more resources than state prosecutors. Another reason that the chances of winning a case in state court can be significantly higher than in federal court, at least in Dallas County, is that state court juries are selected from Dallas County residents only and tend to be less law oriented. On the other hand, federal juries for the federal court that sits in Dallas (the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas) are chosen from residents of several of the surrounding Texas counties (some over an hour away) including many of the more conservative “law and order” areas. Still another reason that the chances of winning a case in state court can be significantly higher than in federal court is that Texas state law permits the suppression of evidence in more circumstances than federal law.

3. Less Options in Federal Court Once Convicted

First, suppose a defendant receives a ten-year sentence in state court and a different defendant receives a ten-year sentence in federal court. The defendant in state court might be paroled after serving only a couple of years of his sentence. On the other hand, parole has been abolished in the federal system and defendants serve 85% of their sentences.

Second, in state court, if a defendant enters a plea agreement with the prosecution, they will know exactly the sentence received if the judge accepts the plea and they will often be sentenced on the same day they enter their guilty plea. On the other hand, most plea bargains in federal court require a defendant to plead guilty not knowing the sentence ultimately received and the sentence will not be imposed until two-three months after the defendant enters a guilty plea. A defendant in federal court must rely upon the skill of his defense lawyer to accurately calculate the sentencing guidelines and, even then, the judge might give a harsher sentence than is provided for under the guidelines. Also a defendant in federal court will not be allowed to withdraw a guilty plea if, at the sentencing held a few months later, the sentence is harsher than the lawyer predicted.

4. Fewer Experienced Defense Attorneys for Federal Crimes

Because the federal system much more complicated, only a small percentage of criminal lawyers can effectively represent a defendant in federal court. Indeed, as we have explained elsewhere, a defendant charged with a crime in federal court must carefully question his lawyer regarding the lawyer’s experience in federal court and ask the lawyer to give them a printout from the PACER system showing the number of defendants the lawyer has represented in federal court.

In any event, given the limited supply of criminal lawyers that can effectively represent a defendant in federal court, legal fees tend to be significantly higher for defendants charged with crimes in federal court.

5. Any Advantages to Being Charged in Federal Court?

While this is a gross generalization, federal judges tend to be smarter than their state court counterparts. State court judges in Texas are elected and anybody with a law license is eligible to run. The President of the United States appoints federal judges for life. Thus, if a defendant has a technical legal argument, a federal judge might better receive it. Likewise, a federal judge does not have to run for reelection and might be less likely to make decisions based on public perception. Still, remember that, when it comes to sentencing, federal judges must give significant weight to the harsh federal sentencing guidelines.

Second, in state court, a defendant is required to post bail to secure their release prior to trial. In federal court, many defendants are released without being required to post bail. On the other hand, in state court bail is set in all cases, whereas, in federal court, if it is determined that a defendant is a danger to the community or a flight risk, bail might not be set at all and a defendant will be detained pending trial.

Generally speaking, a person has no control over whether they are charged in state court or federal court. Many crimes can only be prosecuted in state court (for example, except in limited circumstances or in cases involving federal lands, murders and assaults are only prosecuted in state court). For the most part, the type of offenses that generally overlap are: drug offenses, child pornography offenses, fraud offenses involving banks and embezzlement schemes. Usually it will depend on what agency investigates the case (e.g. the local police as opposed to the FBI, DEA, IRS and alike) as to where the case is brought.

Nevertheless, on some rare occasions, if a lawyer gets involved prior to formal charges being brought, that lawyer might be able to influence the forum in which the charge is brought. This is an important reason to retain an attorney as soon as you find out that you are being investigated for a criminal offense.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.