You've been criminally charged by the United States Attorney's Office and you're going to federal court — now what?
For the uninitiated, it can be an overwhelming prospect to face a federal judge who will likely hand down a prison sentence and a fine if you're convicted.
“At the federal level, probation is rare,” said Michael Palmer, an attorney and partner with Palmer, George & Taylor. “If convicted it's not a question of if you're going to prison, it's a question of how long you'll be going to prison.”
Federal sentencing guidelines for crimes involving drugs, guns and pornography are strict. Unlike Idaho's laws the sentencing guidelines don't provide for much consideration of the circumstances to the individual's specific involvement, Palmer added. “At the state level, the judge can do a lot of different things depending on the circumstances. At the federal level, with the guidelines, it's far more black and white.”
The obvious difference between federal court and state court is jurisdiction. Federal court handles disputes and violations of the United States Constitution and laws passed by Congress. State court is charged with resolving disagreements and violations of state, city and county laws. Many times, federal prosecutors will defer criminal prosecution to local prosecutors.
“A person can be under federal investigation for a long time and not even know it,” said Palmer, who defends people in both state and federal criminal cases. “By the time you're indicted with a federal crime, the prosecutor is required to have his case pretty much ready for trial. It can feel at first glance like they have the case all wrapped up with a bow on top. Whereas in state court, the case may be developing up until the trial.”
The reason for that difference boils down to money. The truth is that the federal government has vast human and financial resources that it can bring to bear on individuals or groups of individuals. The United States government can draw investigators from the F.B.I., Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the National Security Agency, and Homeland Security — compared to city police, sheriff's deputies and state police.
“Federal agencies have different training and hiring standards,” said Palmer. “These agents are usually college educated and they have access to state of the art equipment for things like DNA or surveillance. It's just a reality that the federal government has a lot more money than the states do.”
As of January 2017, there are almost 1,000 pending criminal and civil cases in federal court here. Meanwhile, in state court, the number of pending civil and criminal cases is 6,824.
“State court is like a M.A.S.H. unit,” said Palmer. “They're all incredibly busy, but in terms of resources it really is a numbers game.”
The caseload disparity generates noticeable differences between the two courts, including protocol and style.
“Federal courtrooms are like cathedrals,” said Palmer. “The judge sits up high on the bench and appears to be very august in their presentation. Whereas in state court there is often more of a familiarity between the attorneys and the judge. It's a bit less formal, primarily because of the sheer volume of cases state court is handling. And that's a good thing for everyone.”
Jury selection is another noticeable difference. In state court, attorneys for both sides conduct most of the voir dire, a process of questioning potential jurors about their personal feelings and biases. In federal court it's the reverse, the judge conducts the majority of the voir dire. “I prefer the state court method because you're able to get a better feel for potential jurors by being able to walk over to them and talk,” said Palmer. “In federal court, you have to stand at a podium the whole time, far away from the jurors, and by the time you even get a chance to ask a follow up to one of the judge's questions, it's impossible to capture the spirit of what was originally said.”
Plea bargains are another big difference. At the federal level, Palmer said, understanding where his clients fit in the scheme of things plays a major role in defending them.
“They may have been swept up in a major drug ring and not even know the people at the top,” he said. “The federal prosecutors are most interested in putting away the people in charge of the drug ring, not so much some low level user or mule. It's important to realize this because the consequences of accepting a plea deal, or agreeing to cooperate, can mean the difference between a few years in prison or many. Also, especially in a drug conspiracy case because there are so many people involved, an early plea offer may be the best and only one you're going to get. Whereas at the state level where the cases continue to unfold and develop in real time, plea bargains can happen at any time — including right before a verdict is rendered.”
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--Written by Marc Stewart, Director of Sponsored Content.