If you have a federal case, you are in a lot of trouble. Many lawyers who practice criminal law do not handle federal criminal cases, because they are much more difficult.
Here are some of the reasons why:
- You are much more likely to be “no-billed” in state court than in federal court.
- The time between arrest and trial in federal court may be as little as three months. It usually takes many more months to bring a case to trial in state court.
- Although you are not likely to be required to post bail in federal court while you are awaiting trial, which is a good thing, you are more likely to be detained without bail if legal grounds exist to do so.
- It is more expensive to hire an experienced attorney to represent you in federal court and there will be less time to pay for legal services with a monthly payment plan.
- Plea bargaining is much more limited in federal court than in state court. The actual sentence is always determined by the judge, usually under advisory sentencing guidelines, even after plea bargaining (which may only determine which charge is prosecuted, not the time to be served).
- There is no option for jury sentencing in federal court.
- In state court you are more likely to be charged with a substantive crime, like possessing a certain amount of drugs on a specific occasion. In federal court you are more likely to be charged with conspiracy, which in a drug case means the amount of drugs you “conspired” to possess or sell, even if you did not actually possess or sell any, and the relevant conduct may embrace a year or more, not just a single occasion.
- In the federal system you are much more likely to be incarcerated rather than to receive probation, good time is very limited (no more than about 15% of your sentence), and your time will not be reduced by parole. “Special parole” is community supervision after you have served your prison time that is added to your prison sentence when the judge imposes it.
- In a federal case you and the others arrested as co-conspirators will be under great pressure to cooperate with the government to reduce your own sentence. That is much less common in state court.
- In a federal case the trial judge does all or most of the questioning of prospective jurors, which is not the case in state court
- In a federal case the cross-examination of witnesses is more severely limited than in state court: usually only one cross and one re-cross (limited to subjects covered in re-direct). Cross-examination in state court is not subject to any similar limitation.
- In a federal conspiracy case, the statements of co-conspirators are likely to be admitted in evidence against you, which does not usually happen in state court cases (because they are not usually prosecuted as conspiracies), and the testimony of co-conspirators at trial does not have to be corroborated (unlike the Texas rule), although the judge will caution the jury about relying on it.
In a federal trial the judge has the right to charge the jury after the lawyers argue. In state court, he charges the jury before the lawyers argue. The federal practice probably gives the judge more of an impact on the outcome.
- The dynamics of case preparation and trial in state and federal court are different. In federal court, there is a tendency to reward with reduced sentences people who “cooperate” and basically reveal to the Government all they know about their friends who were breaking the law with them. There is a tendency to punish more harshly those who can not or will not do that, in contrast to state court practice where defendants are rarely asked to testify against each other. Because of this, there is an unfortunate tendency for the “big fish” in federal court to get the biggest breaks– they know more people, and more important people, than the little guys, who find it harder to come up with information that may earn them a break. Furthermore, it is the federal prosecutor who decides whether you get the break or not, in the form of a “5K.1” motion. If he decides, after you have spilled your guts, that what you had to say was just not important, or he does not believe you, you are just out of luck. Sorry Charlie!
- The lesson in all of this is, do not hire an amateur, an inexperienced lawyer who charges a fee that appears to be low and reasonable. He may not know what he is doing, and may have to call up someone who does know in order to try to get a crash course on how to handle your case!