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What Are The Differences Between Federal And State Crimes?

A crime is defined as an act of commission or omission that constitutes an offense punishable by law. There are federal laws and state laws in the US. Each level of legislature has a separate jurisdiction and sovereignty. When an act violates federal laws, it becomes a federal crime. Crimes in this category usually occur in association with federal infrastructure, officials, or interstate matters. The United States Criminal Code, Title 18, defines the following as examples of federal crimes:

  • Crimes against nature: these include plant and animal life.
  • Arson: it involves the destruction of property with the use of fire
  • The possession and use of biological weapons
  • Government involved money theft: the act of embezzling money
  • Auto assisted crimes: it refers to crimes committed with the use of auto vehicles such as driveway shooting,
  • Assault: mostly verbal
  • Conspiracies against the government
  • False claims and services affecting the government
  • Contempt of court
  • Counterfeiting or forgery
  • Drug trafficking
  • Electoral and Political crimes
  • Thefts: could be theft of any nature such as public funds, information, artwork, livestock, etc.
  • Fraud of all kinds
  • Crimes against humanity: war crimes such as genocide, illegal supply of firearms and explosives, inhumane treatment of captives, etc.
  • Export and Import crimes
  • Rape and other sexual crimes

A state crime, on the other hand, is an act that violates state-specific laws. Some laws overlap with federal laws; hence a crime may be labeled both a federal or a state crime. Examples are:

  • Driving Under Influence (DUI)
  • Thefts
  • Domestic violence
  • Forgery and other money thefts
  • Violent and property crimes

If an individual is liable to be prosecuted for an act that violates both state and federal laws, he or she risks being prosecuted twice for the same crime. This is called double jeopardy. Because of this, the US constitution, Fifth Amendment protects such persons from double trials and convictions.

How Does Pennsylvania State Court System Differ From Federal Court System?

Although the criminal justice systems for state and federal are alike in many ways, some differences are evident, such as:

  • Federal judges are different from state judges, and they are elected under separate processes. Federal jurisdictions are higher than that of the state.
  • Assistant attorneys of the federation prosecute federal cases, which district attorneys handle state crimes
  • Evidence and investigation for a federal case are provided by federal agencies, while state agencies investigate state crimes.
  • The length of a court sentence is based on the guidelines for each jurisdiction. Federal sentences for the same crime tend to be tougher than state penalties.
  • Convicts of federal crimes are detained in federal prisons, while state convicts are kept in state detention facilities
  • The trial process is more elaborate at federal levels than it is at state courts.

The Federal Criminal Justice system involves a stepwise process that engages a wide variety of personnel. Typically, ten steps are involved in the federal criminal justice system:

  • Investigation: The Federal system engages some criminal investigation agencies to collect evidence and provide the prosecutor with understanding regarding the case. Some of these agencies are:
    • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
    • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
    • United States Secret Service (USSS)
    • Homeland Security Investigation (DHS/HSI)
    • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)

Where necessary, a search warrant is issued on probable cause by the constitution. On other occasions, an arrest may be required for the investigation. Evidence against a suspect may be direct, meaning that all the facts point to the suspect without an inference. Circumstantial evidence contains the likelihood of chances that an individual is a suspect. After that, a formal arrest is made.

  • Charging: the suspect is formally notified of the crimes he or she is believed to have committed. The federal system uses a grand jury in the presentation of charges before proceeding to charge the individual. Grand juries comprise a minimum of 16 members. After hearing the prosecutor and witness, the jury votes in private on whether the evidence presented is sufficient to proceed on charges. The minimum vote to proceed on charging the suspect is 12. After the arrest and charge, the suspect may hire an attorney or use one provided by the government.
  • Preliminary hearing: a judge conducts a preliminary hearing of the case within 48 hours of arrest. During the session, the suspect, now a defendant, gets to know more about his or her rights and indictments. After that, the defendant may be released on bail or detained. Some defendants may be detained without the option of bail to protect the community from potential danger.
  • Discovery: this process involves studying the evidence, talking with witnesses, dealing with prospective problems, collection of extra evidence, and a rehearsal of selected statements.
  • Plea Bargaining: occasionally, the government may offer the defendant an opportunity to make a plea. By this, the defendant avoids trial and gets to have a shorter sentence. The offer applies to individuals who plead guilty to the offense committed. When this happens, a sentencing hearing is prepared for the next session.
  • Pretrial hearing: an initial hearing of the case commences if the defendant pleads not guilty. It involves hearing witnesses and providing evidence for the judge to decide if there is probable cause to try the defendant.
  • Pretrial Motions: the prosecutor or defense attorney may file a motion with the court before the trial to make a decision. Some of the common motions that are filed are:
    • A motion to dismiss the case, especially if there is insufficient evidence to proceed with the trial
    • A motion to suppress: certain evidence may be suppressed, as is the case if it was discovered during a search without a probable cause. Searching without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment of the US constitution.
    • Motion for the change of venue: an impartial jury may be difficult to achieve in a location where there has been public opinion about a case before trial. The defendant’s attorney may file a motion to change the court venue for the case.
  • The trial: this is the main trial of the justice process. The key player at the main trial is the prosecutor. The trial is subdivided into the following:
    • Jury selection: there could be objections by either party if there are indications that the jury may not be an impartial audience.
    • Opening statements; prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney get to introduce the case to the court.
    • Presentation of cases: this involves the cross-examination of witnesses, objections, and closing arguments. The proportion of each subsection depends on the complexity of the case.
    • Jury instructions: this is the point when the judge reiterates the laws of the state and charges the jury to take an unbiased decision
    • Jury Deliberations
    • Announcement of the Verdict
  • Post-trial Motions: if the defendant is found guilty and convicted, there could be motions for a:
    • New trial
    • Judgment of acquittal
    • Correct set aside, or vacate a sentence: where there are clerical errors in the written judgment.

There is a lag period after the trial before the court passes sentence. During this period, the judge studies the pre-sentence report and receives guidance from the Congress and the United States Sentencing Commissions. Previous crimes by the defendant may be considered in determining the stiffness of the penalty. Capital offenses usually attract a death penalty from the federal government. Exceptions to the rule are convicts under the age of 18 years or mentally challenged persons. After a few months, the defendant returns to be sentenced.

  • Appeal: after the court passes sentence, the defendant may file an appeal to either tone down the sentence, or to challenge the sentence altogether using a new trial. The United States Supreme Court has the final decision in federal appeal cases.

The Pennsylvania Criminal Justice System follows a similar pattern. However, the process begins from the county where the crime was committed. Briefly, a criminal justice process in Pennsylvania follows these steps:

  • Investigation: the local police or county sheriff department is saddled with the responsibility of investigating a criminal case and collecting evidence. This includes taking shots of the venue of the incident, interviewing eyewitnesses, or persons in the neighborhood of the incident. Persons who may have direct involvement with the victim are interviewed. The nature of the case and the complexity determines how extensive the investigation process will be. The investigators communicate all investigations to the prosecutor.
  • Filing of Complaints: the prosecutor decides if the evidence is sufficient to present to the local magistrate court judge. The prosecutor does this as a notice of complaint or indictment, which states lists the charges against the suspect. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury may be used to develop an indictment.
  • Notice of summons or arrest: upon the filing a complaint, the court issues an arrest warrant or summons to the defendant for a pretrial.
  • Preliminary arraignment: a pretrial is conducted for the defendant where he or she gets to hear the charges listed the rights of the defendant. At this point, the judge decides if to grant the suspect bail or retain the suspect in detention. The Commonwealth Court, with jurisdiction over the case, issues a notice that the evidence of the crime is present and the defendant is the suspect.
  • An indictment by the District Attorney’s (DA) office: the DA files a document containing the charges against the defendant with the Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas, also known as the information.
  • Formal prosecution of the defendant: the defendant, either on bail or in detention, is handed the DA’s notice of charges. If the defendant has a plea to make, he or she must file for a pretrial pleading within 30 days from the time the notice is given.
  • Pretrial litigation: This could play out in two ways. The first is the pretrial motions similar to those filed in the federal system. A defendant may file motions to suppress evidence or a postponement of the trial. The second is to file a plea of guilt in exchange for a lighter court sentence. If the motion is approved, the trial stage will be skipped, and the court will go on to sentencing.
  • Trial: a trial in the Pennsylvania Court system may involve a jury or not. In a jury hearing, the jury returns the verdict. Where there is no jury, the judge returns the verdict. Also, the prosecuting party for state crimes is usually the Assistant to the DA, who proceeds to convince the court of the defendant’s guilt.
  • Sentencing: In Pennsylvania, a probation officer prepares a pre-sentencing report which states the crime and the history of the defendant. This preliminary phase takes place upon the request by the judge. Otherwise, the sentencing is straightforward, in the presence of the defendant, their attorneys, and the Assistant DA. Each crime has a standard penalty in Pennsylvania.
  • Post-sentencing: events after the court sentence varies from the execution of the court sentence by the law enforcement agents to the defendant appealing. An appeal may be to tone down the sentence or to challenge the sentence altogether. The Court of Common Pleas, the Superior Court, and the Commonwealth Courts in the state handle appeal cases, depending on the jurisdiction.

How Many Federal Courts Are There In Pennsylvania?

There are 11 federal district courts in the state of Pennsylvania. The District Courts, distributed across the three districts of the state:

  • The Eastern District of Pennsylvania has four Federal District Courts that serve Philadelphia, Allentown, Reading, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Montgomery, Northampton, Lehigh, and Easton counties. Here are the addresses:


James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse

601 Market Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106


Edward N. Cahn U.S. Courthouse & Federal Building

504 W. Hamilton Street

Allentown, PA 18101


The Gateway Building

201 Penn Street

Reading, PA 19601


Holmes Building, 4th Floor

101 Larry Holmes Drive

Easton, PA 18042–7722

  • The Western District of Pennsylvania is served by three federal district courts namely:


U.S. Courthouse

17 South Park Row

Erie, PA 16501

The Erie Courthouse serves Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, McKean, Venango, and Warren counties


U.S. Courthouse

208 Penn Traffic Building

319 Washington Street

Johnstown, PA 15901


Joseph F. Weis, Jr.

U.S. Courthouse

700 Grant Street

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Allegheny, Lawrence, Beaver, Armstrong, Butler, Westmoreland, Fayette, Greene, Jefferson, Indiana, Mercer, Washington, and Clarion counties are under the jurisdiction of the Pittsburgh Courthouse.

  • Four Federal District Courthouses serve the Middle District of Pennsylvania. It was established much later than the earlier mentioned districts. The courthouses are located at Scranton, Harrisburg, Williamsport, and Wilkes-Barre:


William J. Nealon Federal Building. & U.S. Courthouse

235 N. Washington Avenue

Scranton, PA 18503


Ronald Reagan Federal Bldg. & U.S. Courthouse

228 Walnut Street

Harrisburg, PA 17101


Herman T. Schneebeli Federal Bldg. & U.S. Courthouse

240 West Third Street

Suite 218

Williamsport, PA 17701


Max Rosenn U.S. Courthouse

197 South Main Street

Wilkes-Barre, PA 18701

Are Federal Cases Public Records?

In 1967, July 5, the Freedom of Information Act 5 U.S. C. ch. 5, subch. § 552 were set in force by the 89th United States Congress. This law requires all public records, including executive documentation to be made available to members of the public upon request. Federal court cases come under this category and are therefore open to the public.

How To Find Federal Courts Records Online?

Records of cases held in U.S. Federal Courts are accessible online through a national database known as PACER. PACER contains indexes of cases handled by Federal Appellate, Bankruptcy, and District Courts nationwide, available as case files or dockets. Unless the case is less than 24 hours old, all federal cases are accessible on the database.

Interested members of the public can use the Central Pacer Case Locator. Create a user account on the site to get started. Use the PACER Service Center to register as a user on the site. Registration is free. Next, look up the District Court of Pennsylvania of interest. Inquiring parties are required to pay 10 cents per page of a document, and payment is made every quarter. The maximum fees payable per document is $3. If a client’s service fee in a quarter is less than $30, the fee is automatically waived, in keeping with the commitment to make public records available.

How To Find Federal Court Records In Pennsylvania?

Case files and dockets of the US Federal Court cases are available in paper copies at the office of the Clerk of the Federal Court, where the case is filed. Members of the public may also use the public service terminals available at the facility to obtain records from 1999 to date. Note that viewing court records at the courthouse is free, while printing services may be charged at 10 cents per page for electronic records obtained at the terminals. Another way to access court records earlier than 1999 is to visit the Federal Records Center located in the state. The agency is located at:

The Philadelphia Federal Records Center,

14700 Townsend Road

Philadelphia, PA 19154

Call 215 305–2000 or 215 305–2001 for assistance, or send a fax message to 215 305–2038 (or 39). Otherwise, send an email. It costs $64 to view a document at the Records Center.

Can Federal Crimes Be Dismissed In Pennsylvania?

It is quite rare to find federal crimes that were dismissed. This is because of the vigorous investigation that is involved in the pretrial stages of a case. A case dismissal may be classified as straight, grand jury, or deferred prosecution. A straight dismissal happens where there has been a violation of the defendant’s rights in the process of collecting evidence. Also, where there is no probable cause for arrest, a case may be dismissed.

The second is the grand jury dismissal, where the defense attorney convinces the grand jury that the case lacks merit. The third category occurs when the prosecutor agrees to dismiss a case based on a confession by the defendant and willingness to accept legal obligations. All types of dismissal can be reversed if there is overwhelming evidence of the defendant being guilty of the crime, or refusal to meet the obligations he or she agreed to undertake. Other reasons for dismissal include a plea bargain (also known as a deferred disposition dismissal) or a “no contest” plea.

How Do I Clear My Federal Criminal Record?

Sealing a court record refers to concealing a document from public access. Expungement removes the entire record from the system, available only by a court or executive order. While several federal crimes may be sealed from public access, most of them are generally not subject to the possibility of expungement. Exceptions to the rule are:

  • Cases dismissed because of a clerical error, or insufficient/erroneous evidence
  • Drug offenders under 21 years, who have completed a supervised drug rehabilitation program according to §862(c) of the United States Constitution.
  • First-time drug offenders below the age of 18 years, and are on probation (United States Constitution § 3607(a)).

To start the process, file a petition to the Attorney General of the Federation through the defending attorney. For wrongful convictions, the request is approved without any waiting period. If otherwise, it takes a three-year waiting period to get the request approved. During the three years, the Attorney General confirms that the alleged individual is free of legal obligations.

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