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The Difference in Federal vs State court charges

The Floyd Law Firm PC > Information > The Difference in Federal vs State court charges
difference in federal vs. state court charges
by Jarrett Bouchette

A criminal conviction of any type – whether it be a misdemeanor or a felony and whether it is brought by the state government or the federal government – can have serious and long-lasting effects on your freedom, your finances, and your future.

When facing federal criminal charges, a client needs to exercise additional care in selecting an attorney to represent him or her. Federal charges are not necessarily more serious than state charges simply because they are in federal court. For example, murder is almost always a state charge that carries 30 years to life in prison, but the false advertising or misuse of names to indicate association with a federal agency is a federal misdemeanor. However, the difference in substance and procedure between the two systems requires a knowledgeable attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.

There are some key differences between the state courts of South Carolina and federal courts


Due to the fact that there are much fewer cases on the federal docket and the timelines set forth in the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, cases generally move along much faster in the federal system than in the state system. While this may be beneficial for those who want their case tried promptly, it also reduces the ability of the defendant to use the extra time to their advantage. An example of this is when a testifying co-defendant gets arrested or convicted on additional unrelated charges during the time period between indictment and trial, thus giving additional ammunition to challenge the credibility of that witness.


In SC state courts, each crime carries with it a maximum penalty. Other than the maximum sentence, there are no guidelines for sentencing. As such, sentences can vary greatly among judges for the same conviction. Statistically, most cases are resolved by a plea agreement that outlines at least a range of possible sentences – if not a specific sentence – and a defendant who is convicted at trial has only the protection of the maximum sentence imposed by the statute.

In federal courts, there are standardized sentencing guidelines. These guidelines give “points” based upon the defendant’s criminal record and the severity of the crime. The more points, the higher the sentencing guidelines. Though the US Supreme Court in US v. Booker made clear that these guidelines are not mandatory, judges still generally follow pretty close to the guidelines unless they can be persuaded to depart from them. This is generally addressed in a motion for a downward departure filed with the court prior to sentencing.

Pre-Sentencing Memorandum (PSR)

In state court, sentencing is generally handed down at the time of the guilty plea. In federal court, the sentencing is scheduled several weeks after the guilty plea. In the meantime, the US Probation Department prepares a “Pre-Sentencing Report (PSR)” for the judge to review. The report includes background and financial information, criminal history, some medical history, and other information relevant to sentencing. The report also provides an opinion as to what the applicable points are to be applied to the defendant. This is obviously a very important document because it will be reviewed by the judge prior to sentencing. The defendant’s attorney then has the opportunity to challenge the contents, or the conclusion, of the PSR and should do so if there are any inconsistencies.

Attorney T. Jarrett Bouchette is a federal court criminal defense attorney, a trial attorney, and shareholder in the Floyd Law Firm PC. His broad-based experience includes bench and jury trials in both civil and criminal court. Mr. Bouchette is a board member of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (SCACDL) and a member of the National College for DUI Defense.

Securing the representation of an attorney who knows how to build an effective defense, is an essential part towards ensuring that you are able to obtain the best possible outcome to your case. The Floyd Law Firm is here to help you if you have been accused of a crime. Our defense attorneys are experienced in providing aggressive criminal defense. We offer skilled legal representation in magistrate’s court, municipal court, and state courts. We provide defense for clients charged with misdemeanors and felonies.

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