Just like the State of California criminal system, the Federal criminal system comes with its own set of statutes, procedures, courts, judges and prosecutors. The difference lies, however, in that the crimes prosecuted in Federal court are those that are related to the Federal government, crimes that cross state lines, and crimes of international flavor.
Another difference between the two systems is the punishment given for the convicted offense. In a State system the judge has discretion to punish the convicted person as he sees fit, sometimes outside the guidelines set out in the violated statutes.
The Federal criminal system, on the other hand, has guideline sentences for each offense. Although these guidelines are no longer mandatory, the judge usually sticks with the guideline sentences anyway.
Let me give you an example.
About four years ago Alice, entered this country with an intent remain here permanently. She settled in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles county. Being quite wealthy she had decided to purchase a house for cash. She then reconsidered the cash payment. She decided to invest her money elsewhere and simply take out a loan for the house. The problem Alice ran into was that she had no financial history here in the US, no credit history, no income tax records.
Instead of reverting back to her old plan of paying cash, or finding another way around the problem, Alice prepared false income tax returns and presented them to a lending institution. She felt that she really did nothing wrong because she was going to make the monthly payments after all. It was not as if she was going to steal money from the bank. She did exactly what many in our community do.
As a result of these false tax returns she obtained the loan she wanted, purchased her new house and lived there happily for approximately six months, until she was arrested by the FBI for falsifying Federal income tax returns. A colleague of mine who represented Alice told me that she spend five years in a Federal prison.
Had Alice been processed through the Los Angeles Criminal Court system, for example, the California judge in Alice’s case would have had discretion to send her to prison for the same five years or longer, or in the alternative order Alice to perform community service, or a punishment somewhere in between the two extremes. In the Federal system, however, the United States Federal judge has a chart which tells him the punishment for this particular offense, Alice must spend five years in federal prison, no more, no less. Again these guidelines now are only advisory. Nevertheless they are almost always followed by judges.
This is one of the reasons, many consider the federal system to be very harsh and unforgiving. However, despite the severity of the federal system, people can still successfully defend themselves by not speaking with the police or the FBI without an attorney present, by properly preparing for trial, and by having a good Federal criminal defense attorney on their side throughout all stages of the criminal case.