The Difference Between Federal And State Drug Charges

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Getting charged with any type of drug offense can be confusing. There are so many different laws concerning controlled substances that most people can only grasp the very basics of.


Those who have been charged with any type of drug offense will need to become fast learners if they ever hope to maintain their freedom. The first thing you’ll need to figure out is if you’re facing federal or state drug charges. According to,

State law refers to the body of statutes and cases that apply to activities limited to a state’s geographical area. Federal law generally applies to activities that cross state lines or involve interstate commerce.

While those particular rules may seem rather simple it can actually be quite confusing since a person can find himself in violation of both state and federal laws. Clearly, more is involved than just geographical area in determining whether you will be charged with a federal or state crime.

Determining state or federal charges can also be determined by location in other ways. While a crime may be committed on state property it could still be a federal crime if it has occurred in a national park. In these types of cases, often an individual will be charged in both state and federal courts.

The Nature of the Arrest

The primary difference between the two different types of statutes has to do with the nature of the arrest. For example, a simple possession of drugs on the state level will carry a much lighter sentence than any type of offense committed on the federal level.

Generally, federal offenses apply in cases of drug trafficking, possession with intent to distribute, or manufacturing drugs. These are more serious as they deal with much more than just having the substance for personal use but actually represent those who are accused of conducting a criminal enterprise and making a profit.

Possession of an illegal substance, the quantity found in your possession, and your purpose for having the drugs all come into play when authorities are deciding whether or not to charge you on a federal or state level.

Difference in Penalties

Federal crimes will usually carry much more severe penalties than what you would expect on the state level. More often than not, state offenses are likely to be considered as misdemeanors while federal offenses, if found guilty, could see even a first time offender spending many years behind bars. There are numerous federal mandates in place that will impose a mandatory minimum sentence that will guarantee a convicted individual of a lengthy prison stay.

In addition to those sentencing guidelines, a federal drug conviction could also unleash an avalanche of additional charges that may not be directly related to the drug itself. If found guilty of trafficking or distribution with intent to sell you could also find yourself with a tax evasion charge and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) violation that could add even more years to the drug charges. For those who may not have heard of the RICO statutes, ABC Eyewitness News explains it,

It is a complicated, and sometimes controversial federal law initially constructed to assist law enforcement’s fight against organized crime. It’s also used in public corruption cases… It is used to combat street gangs…

While RICO penalties are not exclusive to drug deals, substance abuse takes up a great deal of the criminal charges that fall under its wide scope.

The Investigation

Depending on the degree of the crime it could be investigated by either the state or the federal government. While the states have been given extensive authority to prosecute any number of crimes their investigations are often restricted to those acts that occur within the boundaries. The federal government on the other hand can investigate anywhere within the United States or its Territories. For that reason, it is more likely that a case will be investigated on the federal level if it involves any type of large-scale criminal activity.

The Process

Once you’ve been charged with an offense there are certain procedures that must be followed. The first thing you should expect is that the prosecutors, investigating agents, and police officers will begin the legal process through the executive branch of the government. Unlike in the civil system, there is no such thing as an investigating judge.

However, while the judge’s role is limited there are certain parts of the investigating process that can only be authorized by a judge. According to the Guide to Criminal Prosecutions in the United States,

Only a judge may issue a warrant to search for and seize evidence of crimes; only a judge may order the recording of telephone conversations; only a judge may take action to enforce a subpoena; and except in limited circumstances, only a judge may issue a warrant for the arrest of an accused person.

If during the course of the investigation a prosecutor determines that a judge needs to perform any of these judicial acts, they must petition the court and present the facts or evidence to a judge in order to obtain the needed warrant or order. Only if the judge deems that the evidence is sufficient enough to establish probable cause will the order be executed.

The Decisions

In cases where an individual may be charged with a crime on both the federal and state levels the decision as to how to prosecute is solely in the hands of the prosecution. As laws and regulations vary from one state to the next there is no set rule of thumb that says that a case must be prosecuted in a certain court system. Once a prosecutor has decided to prosecute in federal or state court (or both) there is no appealing this decision.

When it comes to drug crimes, there are a lot of possibilities that could impact the rest of an individual’s future life. One thing is clear, however, and that is that every state and the federal government have definitive laws that prohibit the possession, manufacture, and sale of controlled substances of any kind. If you’ve found yourself in this particular situation then it is time to learn as much as you can about the process and what to expect before it goes any further. You’re treading dangerous waters that could affect the remainder of your life.

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