26 Nov 23

What are the most common federal crimes charged?

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Last Updated on: 29th November 2023, 05:45 am

The Most Common Federal Crimes Charged

Federal crimes make up a relatively small portion of overall criminal prosecutions in the United States. Most crimes are prosecuted at the state and local level. However, federal crimes often involve more serious offenses that cross state lines or have national implications. Some of the most commonly charged federal crimes include drug trafficking, firearms violations, fraud, sex offenses, and immigration violations.

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking and distribution is one of the most commonly prosecuted federal crimes. This includes the manufacture, importation, and distribution of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. Harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s and 1990s for many drug trafficking offenses. As a result, drug crimes make up a significant portion of the federal prison population.The main federal drug trafficking laws are found in Title 21 of the U.S. Code, which is the Controlled Substances Act. Prosecutors often bring charges for possession with intent to distribute or conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Trafficking large quantities of drugs can result in decades-long mandatory minimum sentences. Even peripheral involvement, like driving a drug dealer or allowing your property to be used in drug operations, can lead to federal prosecution.

Firearms Offenses

Various federal firearm laws allow prosecution of defendants who use, carry, or possess firearms while engaged in other federal crimes. There are also laws prohibiting possession of firearms by certain categories of persons, like convicted felons, domestic abusers, and unauthorized immigrants.Some of the most commonly charged federal firearms crimes include:

These firearm offenses often carry lengthy mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. Even displaying or brandishing a weapon during a federal crime can trigger an additional 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Fraud Crimes

Fraud is another broad category that makes up a significant portion of federal prosecutions. This includes crimes like wire fraud, mail fraud, bank fraud, healthcare fraud, tax fraud, bankruptcy fraud, securities fraud, and identity theft.Federal fraud charges often arise when the fraud schemes operate across state lines or involve federally insured institutions like banks. Some of the most commonly used federal fraud statutes include:

White collar federal fraud prosecutions often target corporate executives, medical professionals, accountants, attorneys, and other professionals who abuse their positions of trust.

Sex Offenses

Federal authorities play a significant role in prosecuting sex offenses involving interstate travel, transportation of individuals across state lines, or use of the internet. Some of the most common federal sex crimes include:

These crimes are aggressively investigated and prosecuted at the federal level by agencies like the FBI, ICE, and the Department of Justice. Penalties tend to be severe, especially for child exploitation offenses.

Immigration Violations

Immigration crimes account for a large portion of federal prosecutions each year. Common charges include illegal entry or reentry into the United States, alien smuggling, visa fraud, and false claims of U.S. citizenship.The primary immigration crimes fall under Title 8 of the U.S. Code, which covers immigration laws. The most commonly prosecuted offenses include:

Immigration crimes are investigated by agencies like ICE, CBP, and USCIS. Prosecutions increased substantially in the late 1990s with a policy known as “Operation Streamline.” This resulted in mass prosecutions of immigration violations along the U.S.-Mexico border.


While not an exhaustive list, these categories encompass some of the most commonly charged federal crimes. The severity of potential penalties makes it critical to obtain experienced legal counsel when facing federal prosecution. Unlike state criminal cases, federal cases cannot be handled without a lawyer – federal courts do not allow defendants to represent themselves. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can analyze the charges and evidence, negotiate with prosecutors, and defend the case at trial. This provides the best chance at a favorable outcome.

The Most Serious Federal Crimes

While federal prosecutors handle a wide range of criminal offenses, some of the most serious federal crimes include terrorism, public corruption, organized crime, major fraud schemes, and civil rights violations. These crimes threaten national security, undermine trust in government, or involve systemic harm to communities or institutions.

Terrorism Offenses

Terrorism-related crimes are among the most serious federal offenses. These are typically investigated by agencies like the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Common charges include:

Terrorism cases are considered national security threats. Convictions often result in life sentences or the death penalty.

Public Corruption

Public corruption involves abuses of the public trust by government officials. Common federal corruption charges include:

These cases are prosecuted when elected officials or government employees abuse their positions for personal or political gain.

Organized Crime

Federal prosecutors combat organized crime using statutes like the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This allows prosecuting the leaders of ongoing criminal enterprises. Common charges in organized crime cases include:

These statutes allow prosecutors to target the leadership of criminal organizations, even if they did not directly participate in the crimes themselves.

Major Fraud Schemes

Some fraud schemes cause such extensive harm they rise to the level of being major federal cases. These can include:

  • Securities and commodities fraud
  • Large-scale healthcare fraud
  • Systemic accounting and tax fraud
  • Widespread identity theft and computer hacking
  • Major Ponzi schemes or investment fraud

These cases often involve losses in the millions or billions of dollars. They undermine confidence in financial systems, markets, and institutions.

Civil Rights Violations

Federal civil rights laws prohibit discrimination and civil rights violations based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, and other protected classes. Common charges include:

These cases seek to punish civil rights violations and deter discrimination in areas like housing, employment, voting rights, and hate crimes.While not a comprehensive overview, these categories encompass some of the most serious federal crimes prosecuted by the Department of Justice. The severity of the conduct and potential national implications make these high priority cases for federal law enforcement.

Defenses to Federal Crimes

When facing federal criminal charges, having an experienced defense attorney is critical. There are various legal and factual defenses that can be asserted to fight federal allegations. Common defenses in federal cases include:

Lack of Criminal Intent

Most federal crimes require prosecutors to prove you acted with criminal intent or “mens rea.” For example, fraud requires intent to deceive, while drug trafficking requires intent to distribute illegal drugs. Negating this criminal intent could defeat the charges.Your lawyer may argue you made an honest mistake, lacked necessary knowledge, or had no intent to break the law. This is especially common in highly technical areas like healthcare billing, taxes, and regulatory compliance.

Duress or Coercion

If you can show you were coerced into committing a crime through threats of violence, prosecutors may have difficulty establishing criminal intent. This is an affirmative defense that requires proving you had a reasonable fear of injury or death if you did not comply.


Entrapment occurs when government agents improperly induce you to commit a crime you otherwise would not have. Undercover operations that use coercion or appeals to sympathy could support an entrapment defense.


Self-defense or defense of others can justify certain violent crimes. This requires proving you faced an imminent threat and used an appropriate level of force to counter that threat.