Differences Between Federal And State Criminal Cases
As far as the differences go between a federal criminal case and a state criminal case, there are many. One big difference is the judges. In a federal case, a judge gets assigned to the case and that judge is on the case. Period. The federal judges are tenured for life and they don’t mix and match judges like they do in a state case. For example, if a state case, if your case is set for trial and that particular judge’s courtroom is busy they’ll just shift it to another courtroom. That’s not a problem. Federal, on the other hand, it is almost always staying with the judge who it is assigned to.
Even in the downtown Los Angeles State Court which is the main hub in LA county, once the case goes past the preliminary hearing, goes into the trial court and is ready for trial, instead of the courtroom where the case is pending, it will be sent to Department 100 in downtown Los Angeles and from there they’re going to find an open court. It could go right back to the court where it came from, but they’re going to find an open court and that’s where the case is going to be tried. So, that’s a huge difference between state and federal where you’re much less sure of who your judge is going to be in a state case, whereas in a federal case you know what judge you have, whether they’re a tough judge, a middle of the road judge or a more lenient judge which is huge for strategy purposes as far as how you handle the trial, how you handle the motions and how you handle the plea negotiations with the prosecutors.
Are Defenses Different In State And Federal Cases?
The reality is even though you’re dealing with the Federal Rules of Evidence in a federal case and you’re just dealing with the State Evidence Code, Penal Code, Vehicle Code, Health & Safety Code in state cases, really the law is very similar in how the case is dealt with, especially in a trial, it’s also very similar. There are a few different twists. Some of them are the formality – like when you’re going to object in federal court you need to stand up to raise your objection, whereas in a state court you can object from your seat in most circumstances. That’s kind of more of a formal way of looking.
Also, another big difference is in federal you’re typically not doing a preliminary hearing, although there are some jurisdictions I’ve seen where they do a preliminary hearing which can be advantageous to the defense because you can really get a good peek at the prosecutor’s evidence, cross-examine some of their witnesses under penalty of perjury which you are able to do in a state case, but in a federal case you’re typically not doing a preliminary hearing. That’s being waived and you’re either going to trial or you’re going to work some sort of deal out with the prosecutors.
Another big difference between state and federal that I see has to do with the way a plea agreement is worked out. In a federal case, the prosecutors will send you a written formal document – almost a 16, 17, 18-page document hat’s the plea agreement – you negotiate with them and then ultimately, if you work the case out by way of a plea, everybody signs it – the prosecutors, the defense attorney and the defendant. Then the probation department weighs in and they do a report, and ultimately, the sentence is up to the judge.
Or, as in a state case, a lot of negotiation is done between the prosecutor and the defense, but if you work out an agreement there are waiver forms which is not anywhere like a plea agreement, and ultimately you know what the sentence is going to be in a state case. It’s very rare that a judge is going to make the final decision on the sentence unless there’s a probation violation or some type of a “top” like somebody pleads and the most they can get would be 6-year top and they could get anywhere from that to probation and the judge would decide. But in most cases, it’s already a foregone conclusion of what the sentence is going to be by the time the judge gets to actually formally sentencing the person.
Whereas, in a federal case, it’s a whole different ballgame. You have a situation where the judge has all the power. They have to look at what the defense says, look at what the prosecution says, look at what the probation department says, consider the guideline range, also consider all the different factors related to the case, and then the reality is, they can pretty much give whatever sentence they want as long as they can justify the sentence.
So, there are so many different factors when it comes to federal versus state cases. There’s no way to go into all of them. There’s a bunch of different nuances on how the cases are tried, how they’re negotiated – even how they’re investigated. Another huge distinction, I think, is – and I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, both at the state and federal level – I think the way they investigate the cases is huge. The feds will take one year, two years, three years, four years to investigate some of these cases so once the case starts, they’ve already done all their work. They’ve got it all loaded up and now it’s time for the defense to catch up and do their own investigation and their own motions to be able to challenge the case.
Whereas, the state kind of have to go on a wing-and-a-prayer. The police arrest somebody, they put the case into court. They’ve got to get the defendant in there within seventy-two hours and they better have their act together, their case filed and be ready to go. Unless somebody bails out and then that buys them an extra thirty or forty-five days to be able to get the case together. But it’s a totally different ballgame when it comes to having the time to prepare and get the case together when you talk state versus federal across the country.
So, if you’ve got a federal or state case, you want to make sure you get an attorney who is not only local to the jurisdiction where the case is going to be tried but also an attorney who is a specialist in the area. In federal, lawyers can travel all over the country. The federal sentencing guidelines are the same in every single state in the nation. Whereas, in the state, you definitely want to get a lawyer that practices in that particular courthouse where your case is pending.
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