Federal v. State Criminal Procedure

The first difference between the state and federal court criminal procedure is that of uniformity. On the state side, everything from the structure of the state court system, to the hierarchy of prosecutors, to the criminal statutes in effect, to the procedures for moving from arrest to trial differ from state to state. In contrast are the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, a uniform set of rules that govern all federal courts.

State Court Procedure

There are some general consistencies in state criminal procedure, however. The police who investigate a crime will write up reports describing the crime and the evidence. This is submitted to a prosecutor for evaluation. Some states have a two or three tier system, with City Prosecutors, County Prosecutors and the Attorney General dividing up the work, often on the basis of misdemeanors vs. felonies. Other states have only county prosecutors.

Some states have Municipal Courts, which handle misdemeanors and/or the initial phases of felonies, and Superior Courts. Other states have only one level of criminal trial court. Charges may get filed through the prosecutor’s submitting evidence to a grand jury, which then indicts the suspect. Other states give the prosecutor full power to file only the charges he wishes. Some states have both procedures. After charges are filed, the defense is entitled to receive discovery, meaning copies of the investigative reports and other evidence.

If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will either go to trial, or first to a preliminary hearing, which is an interim evidence presentation to the Judge only, for his or her decision whether the case may continue to trial. Criminal defendants in every state have a right to a trial by jury, but can agree to be tried by the judge alone (this is rarely the case).

Federal Court Procedure

The Federal Trial Court is called the U.S. District Court. The U.S. Attorney (prosecutor) is more prone to initiate charges by indictment, particularly in complex and serious cases. Again, there are misdemeanors and felonies, the right to jury trial, and the right to discovery. Cases are investigated by Federal law enforcement officers, including the F.B.I, the D.E.A, and Customs, along with local and state police forces.

Another difference is that a federal judge has a magistrate to assist him in some phases of the cases. The magistrate is a judge with limited powers who works under the supervision of the federal judge. Rules and timetables for motions, hearings, and trials are all governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, although there may be some differing local rules that each district court can issue.