Federal criminal charges are different than charges in state court. Most people know something of how things work in state court, if only through television shows. Federal court is different.

If you're facing federal charges, you should know what these differences are. You should hire a lawyer who knows what the differences are too. If you'd like to talk to a lawyer with experience in federal court, click here to Contact a Federal Defense Attorney Now!

Here are the major differences between state court criminal charges and federal criminal charges:


Federal prosecutors are called Assistant United States Attorneys. They tend to have fewer cases than state prosecutors and they tend to spend more time working on the cases they bring. That means that if you are in federal court, and a federal prosecutor has already decided that your case is one that he or she is giving attention to.

In state court, often the police decide who to charge and a state prosecutor only sees it shortly before court. That's not what normally happens in federal court. More and more, federal prosecutors work with federal law enforcement agents as cases are developed. By the time you find out that you've been charged with a federal crime, the AUSA has probably been investigating you for weeks, if not longer.


Federal crimes are heard by federal judges. There are two kinds of federal judges that will be involved in any federal felony.

First, there are United States Magistrate Judges. A magistrate judge will likely be the first judge you appear in front of after you are arrested on federal charges. A federal magistrate judge may also hear some motions in your case.

The second kind of judge is a United States District Judge. These judges are appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. A federal district court judge serves for life, and can only be removed by being impeached by the Senate.


A federal district court judge has many fewer cases than most state court judges. In state court, many cases are set for the same court hearing. This rarely happens in federal court. If you have a court hearing in federal court, normally your case is the only one that will be heard at that time.

If you have a trial set in federal court, your case is almost always the only case set for trial in front of that judge on that day.

Because state court trial days are unpredictable, sometimes, in state court, you can simply wait until the last minute and the prosecutor won't be ready. In state court, the judge will then sometimes dismiss the case.

Cases are almost never dismissed in federal court because the prosecutor isn't ready. Because everyone knows that on the day of trial the trial will start, the AUSA will make sure that his or her witnesses are present and ready.


In state court, bail is often simply a question of coming up with money. In federal court, by contrast, the judge will impose conditions of release, and supervision by an officer in a federal pretrial services office.

These conditions can include a monetary bail, but more likely they require you to check in frequently with the pretrial services officer, receive mental health testing or treatment, and submit to a review of your financial information – particularly for a white-collar crime.

Sometimes, if someone is a more serious risk of flight or a danger the community, the court may require that the person live at home on electronic monitoring, with an ankle bracelet. This is becoming more frequent when the person who is accused of a crime has significant contacts outside of the United States.


In state court, the jury pool comes from people who are in the same county as the court. Potential federal jurors, on the other hand, come from the judicial district or judicial division where the court is located. A federal judicial district normally includes a large number of counties.

In every federal district court other than the federal court in the District of Columbia and the Southern District of New York in Manhattan, the jurors in federal court come from a more geographically diverse area than in state court. Because the jurors come from a wider geographic area, they tend to be more demographically diverse than a state court jury.


Federal sentencing is based on the federal sentencing guidelines, and a host of federal laws that govern how a sentenced is to be imposed in federal court.

These are technical areas of the law that are tremendously complex. On this page, we try to put together as much information as we can about federal criminal charges. If you have a question that you can't find an answer to here, please let us know – we'll try to answer it.