What Is The Difference Between Federal and State Law?

When you have two governments (state and federal) governing the same people, there is an opportunity for conflict. Legal complications due to differences in state and federal law often arise and can leave many Washington residents confused and worried.

Sometimes, things are legal within a state, but illegal federally. Other times, the federal government says you have certain rights, while a state seems to limit or expand those rights. Who’s right? And which one do you listen to? 

The differences between federal and state law are confusing and many people have made critical errors when it comes to determining which laws to follow. As this is a legal issue, you can’t afford to be wrong. 

This article will help you understand the differences between federal and state law and which one wins out in a court system. When it comes to the law, never try to guess which ones to abide by. Take advantage of the information given in this article and contact our legal team to ensure that you acutely understand the relationship between federal and state legal systems.

Federal and State Law

What is the Difference Between Federal and State Law?

While federal law applies to all 50 US states, state law is individual. Laws that are put in place in individual states do not apply to other states. This means that it’s possible to do something that is legal in your home state, while the same act could earn you a fine in another state. 

Examples of State Laws

A few humorous examples of the differences in state law include:

  • In Washington State, it is perfectly fine to allow your pet donkey to sleep in a bathtub, but in Arizona, an old state law that is still on the books states that it’s illegal to let a donkey sleep in a bathtub — standing in the bathtub is just fine though. 
  • In Washington, you can keep your twinkly Christmas lights up all year round, while in Maine it is illegal to keep Christmas decor up until after January 14.  
  • In Washington State, there is actually a state law that makes it illegal to harass or kill the legendary bigfoot, while other states don’t seem so concerned about sasquatch’s wellbeing.

While these old laws may not have much practical influence on life today, there are thousands of more relevant state laws that change from state to state. These include laws on criminal matters, divorce and family situations, welfare programs, injured worker compensation laws, real estate, property laws, and many more.

Examples of Federal Laws

While state law tends to address the nitty-gritty of what you can and can’t do, federal law usually covers more broad topics like immigration law, social security, civil rights law, and federal criminal laws (drug trafficking, money counterfeiting, etc.).

Despite being broader, there are still instances where state and federal law come into conflict. When that happens, who do you listen to? More on that in a moment. 

Does State Law Apply to Visitors?

State laws apply to both residents and visitors to the state. They also apply to corporations, businesses, and organizations operating within the state.

So yes, if you are a visitor to a certain state, their state laws apply to you and you will be held accountable to follow the laws of whatever state you are in. 

Does Federal or State Law Win When There is a Contradiction?

Usually, if there is a conflict between federal law and state law, this problem is solved by the supremacy clause (they are the supreme laws of the land as stated by the constitution) and the federal law wins out.

While states can give people more rights than the federal law, states cannot be more restrictive than federal laws. State laws may not infringe on federal law, meaning that if a right is afforded to Washington State residents on a federal level, the state legislature may not infringe on those rights.

When the state law and federal law are in alignment, the state may choose to grant more rights. But in cases where the state law contradicts the federal law, attempting to limit activity, the federal law wins out.

If you choose to follow a state law that contradicts federal law, the state authorities will not punish you — but federal authorities can. This has been a common occurrence in the past when it comes to state and federal laws that contradict over issues like marijuana use and many others.

That said, the purpose of this article is to provide some simple clarity on the difference between state and federal law. Always speak with an attorney before making any decisions about which laws to follow. Every situation is different and there are a lot of nuances within this topic.

Get in Touch With Expert Attorney Matthew Leyba Today

Expert defense attorney Matthew Leyba has been helping individuals in Seattle and the surrounding area defend against charges for more than a decade. He has experience in criminal and defense law and uses his skills to help his clients overcome legal obstacles.

If you would like to schedule a consultation with Matthew Leyba, give Leyba Defense a call today. With a seasoned attorney at your side legal hurdles and charges become manageable, enabling you to continue with your livelihood as normally as possible.

Give Leyba Defense a call to figure out your state vs. federal law issue and take control of your legal situation.