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What are Federal Charges?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 16, 2024
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Federal charges are legal charges filed if a person is suspected of committing a federal crime. These charges indicate that the crime has violated legislation created by the federal government, rather than laws made by state or local institutions. There are many crimes that qualify for federal-level charges, depending on the laws of the governing body.

The distinction between federal and state or regional charges is not always evident. There are several factors that can determine whether charges are filed at the regional or federal level, including the type and location of the crime and the volume of evidence. Some crimes may be applicable for both state and federal charges, in which case jurisdiction may depend on the individual circumstances of a crime.

The rules of evidence in federal criminal procedure tend to differ from those of lower ranking courts. Generally, federal charges cannot be filed until extensive evidence is compiled and the case is reviewed and deemed acceptable by a governing body. Federal-level charges are usually investigated by a government agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and prosecuted by a special federal prosecutor. Another way federal charges can result is if a person commits a crime on federal land, such as in a national park.

Although countries with federal court systems have varying ideas about the role of the government in pursuing crime, certain areas, such as national defense, currency, and international relations are usually considered federal rather than state or regional issues. Other areas that may qualify for federal charges include mail fraud or large scale investment fraud, wire fraud, gun or weapons violations, and possession or distribution of child pornography. Crimes that cross state lines, such as some drug trafficking operations, may be charged federally to avoid creating conflict between states.

If facing federal charges, many legal experts recommend seeking out an experienced lawyer that specializes in federal law. Since the rules of procedure and evidence often differ extensively from regional rules, a regular criminal defense lawyer may not be sufficient to handle a federal case. It is important to note that since many federal cases undergo an extensive investigation period before being allowed in court, the conviction rate is typically extremely high.

Some countries, such as the United States, use a uniform sentencing code to determine appropriate penalties based on federal charges. This issue is extremely controversial, as judges are required to consider a formula for sentencing based on the type of crime and the defendant's criminal history. The sentencing code has led to the adoption of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, particularly for drug possession and trafficking crimes. This issue remains a major controversy in legal circles, as many claim that mandatory minimums and the sentencing code reduce the rights of judges.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for MyLawQuestions. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon326478 — On Mar 22, 2013

Can the federal prosecutor indict a person just by obtaining statements written and signed by other convicted felons?

By anon321041 — On Feb 20, 2013

If you are charged with an indictment, can you be held accountable for charges that are not in the indictment?

By poppyseed — On May 15, 2011

I was scared out of my mind once when I was a teenager because I just knew the feds were coming to get me. Now I was an honor roll student, top 10% and all that. But I had indeed committed a crime.

I had gone on a trip to the mountains with a group of friends. We were chaperoned, of course, but by police officer friends. Can you imagine?

Well, I was happily picking the flowers on the side of the road on a federal reserve. There was a sign clearly marked that said something like ‘Don’t Pick Flowers.’

Those flowers were so pretty, I just ignored it; until one of the cops on the trip with us informed me I was breaking federal laws and could actually be thrown in jail for it.

Of course, he was just yanking my chain, but I quit picking those flowers right away! I just couldn't afford a federal attorney for my crimes.

By tlcJPC — On May 12, 2011

Is it possible for a person to be tried both in a state court and on a federal level for the same crime?

For instance, if a person is drug trafficking over state lines, they are obviously breaking both federal laws as well as state laws; possession of drugs, intent to sell and so on.

In a case such as this would the criminal receive punishment from both state and federal courts, or just automatically be handed over to the higher court?

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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