22 Sep 23

What makes it a federal crime?

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Last Updated on: 23rd September 2023, 05:51 am

What Makes It a Federal Crime?

What Makes It a Federal Crime?

The American legal system divides criminal law into two broad categories – state crimes and federal crimes. Many acts can be prosecuted at both the state and federal levels. But what exactly makes something rise to the level of a federal crime versus just a state crime?

Federal criminal law primarily focuses on offenses that impact federal interests, cross state borders, or involve complex global enterprises like terrorism or organized crime. Federal resources and expertise make the federal system well-suited to prosecuting these sorts of complex, interstate cases.

Jurisdiction Based on Location

One major factor conferring federal jurisdiction is the location where the crime occurred. Offenses committed on federal property like military bases, post offices, national parks, and Native American tribal lands automatically qualify as federal crimes. The government has authority over actions transpiring on its own soil.

Crimes Against the Federal Government

Another basis for federal jurisdiction is crimes directly targeting U.S. government interests, officials, or property. These include offenses like bribing federal officials, defrauding the government, threatening federal agents, destroying federal property, tax evasion, and immigration violations.

Interstate Commerce Clause

Under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can prosecute crimes that involve interstate commercial activity. So illicit business enterprises like human trafficking, drug trafficking, illegal weapons sales, gambling, and money laundering often trigger federal charges.

Complex Global Crimes

Some crimes like terrorism, espionage, and complex financial frauds deemed to impact national security or global stability warrant federal prosecution. State-level resources are often inadequate for investigating such far-reaching, technologically sophisticated criminal networks.

Civil Rights Offenses

Violent crimes infringing on citizens’ civil rights like hate crimes, police brutality, and obstruction of voting rights constitute federal offenses. These matters fall under federal authority to protect constitutional liberties.

Federal Criminal Statutes

Hundreds of specific statutes in the U.S. criminal code define federal crimes. Some of the most commonly prosecuted federal offenses include:

  • Drug crimes like drug trafficking, manufacturing, and distribution
  • Weapons offenses like illegal firearm sales and possession
  • Financial crimes like wire fraud, tax evasion, identity theft, embezzlement
  • Organized crime activities like racketeering and money laundering
  • Sex crimes like sex trafficking and child pornography

Sentencing Differences

One major implication of a federal case is harsher sentencing compared to similar state charges. Federal sentencing guidelines often mandate lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms for many crimes.

Legal Strategy Differences

The complexities of federal law and procedures alter typical legal strategies as well. Federal cases require specialized expertise in areas like federal sentencing guidelines, submitting motions to suppress evidence, negotiating plea agreements, and filing appeals.

When State and Federal Charges Overlap

In many instances, the same criminal act violates both state and federal law. The principle of “dual sovereignty” allows federal and state prosecutors to bring charges for the same offense without violating double jeopardy protections.

How Federal Cases Get Initiated

Cooperative efforts between federal and state law enforcement like joint task forces frequently drive federal prosecutions. Tips and evidence sharing between local police, the FBI, DEA, and other agencies help initiate many federal cases.


While complex at times, the basic distinction between federal and state criminal law involves the scope and gravity of the offense. If it impacts federal interests or crosses state lines, expect federal charges and harsher penalties.

How Federal Cases Get Initiated

Several common scenarios initiate federal criminal cases:

  • An arrest by federal agents like the FBI, DEA, ATF, or other agencies for offenses within their jurisdiction.
  • Investigation by a federal grand jury convened by a U.S. Attorney.
  • Referral from state or local law enforcement to federal prosecutors.
  • Indictment by a federal grand jury based on evidence submitted by investigators.

Joint state-federal task forces frequently collaborate on building evidence for federal charges.

Defending Against Federal Charges

Fighting federal charges requires specialized legal expertise including:

  • Contesting evidence through motions to suppress.
  • Seeking dismissal of charges through procedural motions.
  • Negotiating plea agreements with advantageous terms.
  • Preparing meticulous defense strategies for trial.
  • Understanding complex federal sentencing guidelines.

Hiring experienced federal criminal defense counsel is crucial when facing federal prosecution.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

Those confronted with potential federal charges should avoid:

  • Speaking to investigators without an attorney present.
  • Destroying or concealing evidence when under investigation.
  • Assuming charges are inevitable once investigated.
  • Waiving your right to remain silent or obtain counsel.

Following your lawyer’s advice is key, as naive mistakes can sink your chances of success.