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by Tulsa Criminal Defense Lawyer Kevin Adams
I am an Oklahoma criminal defense attorney experienced in fighting state and federal criminal cases, both at trial and on appeal. After years of defending people in state and federal court I can say that there is a big difference between the two systems. Sometimes a defendant is better off being charged in state court and other times a defendant is better off being charged in federal court, it just depends on the case. Most people "freak out" when they learn they are being charged in federal court rather than state court. On this page I will explain the Federal Criminal System and at the same time explain the difference between the federal and Oklahoma state criminal justice systems. For more information on Federal Criminal Justice System read Federal Criminal Law Overview.
Federal prosecutors file significantly less criminal charges than state prosecutors. For example in the entire United States in the fiscal year 2015, there were over 71,000 people sentenced in federal courts, this includes felony and misdemeanor charges. In 2015 in the 6 most populated counties in Oklahoma (Oklahoma County, Tulsa County, Cleveland County, Comanche County, Canadian County and Rogers County) prosecutors filed almost 37,000 state criminal charges, including felonies and misdemeanors. So in 6 out of the 77 counties in Oklahoma alone, half as many felony and misdemeanor charges were filed than in all the federal district courts across the United States.
The main reason that state courts files so many more charges than federal courts is because state courts have the primary responsibility for the enforcement of criminal laws. For someone to be prosecuted in federal court the court must have jurisdiction. There are a number of things that can give a federal court jurisdiction; the crime occurred on federal land, the crime involved interstate commerce, the crime involved a federally insured institution, and numerous other reasons.
Federal prosecutors are much more selective about the charges that they file than state prosecutors. There are a number of reasons federal prosecutors are more selective, first of all in most cases the federal prosecutor that presents the case to the federal grand jury will handle the case through the resolution. This makes federal prosecutors more selective in picking which cases they will file. Secondly, because of the types of cases federal prosecutors handle there is less pressure to file marginal cases. Third, United States Attorneys are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate so they are immune from much of the local pressure to file marginal cases.
Not taking into account the charges just on a system wide level, people charged in federal court are less likely to receive probation than the people charged in Oklahoma state court. In 2015 only seven (7%) percent of those sentenced in federal courts across the country received probation. However, seventy-one (71%) percent of those sentenced in the federal system received a sentence of less than five (5) years. ( See Overview of federal Cases for Fiscal Year 2015 by the United States Sentencing Guidelines)
In the majority of criminal cases in Oklahoma state court the formal process begins by the filing of a Criminal Informmation by the county District Attorney. After the arraignmnet the state court criminal defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing during which the state must persuade a judge that probable cause exists before the judge "binds" the case over for trial.
However, in the federal system most cases begin after evidence has been presented to a federal grand jury and the grand jury has returned the indictment. The purpose of the grand jury process is to determine if probable cause exist to proceed with the prosecution. In federal court the grand jury process takes the place of the state preliminary hearing process and a defendant who has been indicted is not entitled to be indicted be the grand jury.
There is a process in the federal system by which a person can be charged by a "complaint" and is entitled to a grand jury within 14 days (if in custody) and 21 days (if not in custody), however that does not happen near as often as charges by indictment. (See Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5.1)
It is not unusual for Oklahoma state court criminal defendants to wait months or over a year before their trial. I have had clients who have had to sit in jail for almost two (2) years before receiving their jury trial. This does not happen in federal court except for the most extreme cases. In federal court The Speedy Trial Act requires that in most cases federal criminal defendants will proceed to trial within seventy (70) days of their initial appearance.
The Speedy Trial Act is both good and bad for federal criminal defendants. Many federal criminal defense attorneys dislike The Speedy Trial Act and feel that it gives the Government an advantage because they will investigate a case for months or even years before indicting someone and then the defense lawyers must be ready to defend the case in front of a jury within seventy (70) days. I have never found The Speedy Trial Act to be much of a burden.
For most cases in the Oklahoma criminal justice system the prosecutor and the defense attorney will work out a plea agreement and the defendant knows what the deal is before they enter the plea. This is rarely the case in federal court. In federal court the sentence is determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a very complicated set of rules that are used to determine sentences in the federal criminal justice system. In the federal system a defendant must enter a plea first and then learn the sentence they will receive weeks or months down the line.
In Oklahoma state courts the jury recommends the punishment. In federal court the jury has no idea what the punishment will be. Typically juries are harsher on punishment. Additionally if there are multiple counts most judges in Oklahoma will run these counts consecutive if a defendant is convicted at a jury trial. Jurors are not told that the judge will do this. I have seen many cases where a state court criminal defendant turned down probation and ended up with a double digit sentence in state prison.
There is less of a penalty for proceeding to trial in the federal criminal system. In federal court a defendant receives "acceptance of responsibility points" (either 2 or 3 points) for entering the plea. The points come into play in determining a sentence. Since most people (93%) who are convicted in federal court will receive a sentence of incarceration, all most defendants are risking by proceeding to trial is the additional time they may receive for not receiving their "acceptance of responsibility" points. Each case must be evaluated individually, but I am of the opinion that many more federal criminal defendants should proceed to trial than actually do. I am also of the opinion that the reason they do not is because most federal criminal lawyers do not like to go to trial because they are afraid to fight.
In the Oklahoma criminal justice system the vast majority of crimes are not 85%. (Learn about the Oklahoma 85% law.) However, all prison time in the federal system is 85%.
Of course no one wants to go to prison. However, if I had to go, I would much rather go to federal prison than state prison. Federal prisons are nicer, less violent, have more opportunities and they have an email system for their inmates.
Federal probation offices are better funded and keep better track of offenders they are supervising, so if a defendant wishes to continue to live a criminal lifestyle they are more likely to get caught and sent back to prison. However, for those offenders that want to change their lives and not return to prison, they are much better off in the federal probationary system. Federal probation officers generally try and help offenders turn their lives around and they have much more resources than the state to accomplish that goal.
A defendant has more rights in Oklahoma state court than they do in federal courts. However, the federal courts are more serious about enforcing the rights of a defendant. If a defendant is charged with a crime, and whether or not that defendant goes to prison, depends upon a motion to suppress in which they have a legitimate legal issue, they are much better off in federal court. Federal judges are typically smarter, less overworked and more serious about protecting the Constitutional Rights of the Defendant. I can not tell you how many times I have spent hours writing motions in state court, that I know the state court judge did not even bother to read. That does not happen in federal court. If you file a legitimate motion in federal court the judge and his or her clerk will read the motion. I have won motions in federal court that I know I would have lost in state court, simply because the judges in state court do not take a defendant's rights as seriously as the federal judges do.
I try to respond to all inquires as quickly as possible. If you need immediate assistance you can call my office (918) 582-1313 or my cell phone (918) 230-9513. If you are in need of emergency assistance feel free to call my cell phone anytime either day or night.