I am often asked by clients to explain to them the differences between the criminal justice system on the state and federal level. I will try to explain some of the differences in both a succinct way and then in a more elaborate way. Some people mistakenly think that the case is more serious and the chances of prevailing are smaller if the case is federal. This isn’t true. Every case is unique and how it is handled matters. This is true regardless of where the case is heard. You need a good lawyer either way.
In a nutshell, the criminal justice systems in both the New York state and federal level are surprisingly similar. However, they are very different in some respects. The systems are similar in that the U.S. Constitution and the requisite due process rights are just as applicable in both the state and federal level. So the rights that the U.S. Constitution affords you are just as applicable on the state level as they are on the federal level. So for example, if a police officer searches you in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, then the evidence recovered will be suppressed in both the New York state level and on the federal level. The same is true if you made an incriminating statement after being under arrest, but were never read your Miranda rights. The right to cross-examine witnesses is similar, the right to have the government prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, etc, etc, etc, is all similar. The courtrooms might look a little nicer in federal court and the decorum is certainly higher, however, the process as a whole is somewhat similar.
The differences between federal court and New York state court center around the resources that the different prosecuting agencies have and on the politics of the elected officials who make the laws. New York state prosecutors just don’t have the resources that their federal counterparts have. They don’t have the money or the time to treat each case as individually as the U.S. Attorney’s Office does. In a state prosecution, a crime is typically alleged to have occurred, the police investigate the crime, make an arrest, and then dump everything on the District Attorney’s Office, which handles the bulk of illegal allegations. The District Attorney’s Office then is tasked with investigating the case and prosecuting it. This leads to bad assumptions based on faulty of evidence and lots of mistakes. The U.S. Attorney’s Office operates in a very different way. They usually have years to investigate illegal activity and they work together in conjunction with their law enforcement counterparts and they lay in wait until the right time to make an arrest. They pour in countless resources into their investigations and they can afford to be selective in their prosecutions. Obviously, this blog post is written in a very general way, but this is the general gist. As a result of the differences in resources available to the two offices, prosecutions on the federal level tend to be more thoroughly vetted than on the state level and the evidence can appear more overwhelming. To put it plainly, federal prosecutions are less likely to have errors than in the state system. This does NOT mean that errors don’t happen on a federal level- they do. And a good lawyer is just as important to make sure that the governments on both the New York state or on the federal level are held to their burdens. As far as the politics of elected officials are concerned, things like drugs, etc, are punished more harshly on the federal level, however, possessing unlicensed firearms are punished more harshly on the state level. It depends on what politicians run on and where they are in the country.
Another key difference is that judges in New York state have routinely given defendants more rights under the New York state constitution than their federal counterparts have. This means police conduct could be illegal because of the New York constitution even if it was legal under the federal constitution. For example, if a person is running from the police and he tosses some drugs out of his pocket while running, under federal law, the evidence is considered “abandoned” and therefore there is no mechanism to suppress it. In New York court, however, if the person can prove that he was being chased for no good reason, then the tossing of the contraband is considered “involuntary” and it would therefore be suppressed.
Another difference is that there tends to be less poker playing on the federal level. The New York state system encourages a shocking amount of bluffing by prosecutors who more or less try and fool a defendant into pleading guilty without seeing all the evidence. Inexperienced defense attorneys fall for it all the time and scared defendants take the bait. On the federal level, discovery is routinely turned over and the pleas tend to be more voluntary in the sense that the person knows what the evidence is when they decide to either go to trial or to plead guilty.
The biggest difference, though, is that in the state system prison sentences tend to be negotiated unless the person goes to trial and loses. On the federal level, even if a person pleads guilty, the sentence is litigated. Meaning that defense attorneys and Assistant U.S. Attorneys fight over the sentence and the judge decides what is appropriate based on a number of factors. This means that lawyers act more like lawyers and less like car dealers.
As I stated previously, being prosecuted on the state level is just as serious as being prosecuted on the federal level. How much time you could be facing in one system versus the other depends on who you are and what the allegations are. In either circumstance, an experienced criminal defense attorney is critical. The decision you make as to what lawyer should represent you is the most important decision you will make.