Per the laws of the United States, criminal offenses can be considered state offenses or federal offenses. They are prosecuted accordingly, either at the state level or at the federal level. A federal crime is one that has been made illegal by federal legislation.
Many types of federal crime are also illegal at the state level. However, certain acts—such as those that occur on federal property or on Native American reservations—are only illegal at the federal level.
Federal criminal cases are generally investigated by the following organizations:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
- Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
- Secret Service
Examples of Federal Crimes
There are over 200 categories filled with violations that are considered federal crimes. These include:
- Counterintelligence Crime
- Public Corruption
- Civil Rights Violations
- Organized Crime
- White-Collar Crime
- Art, Cargo, Jewelry, and Gem Theft
- Bank Robbery
- Indian Country Crime
- Drug Offenses
- Violent Crimes Against Children
- Kidnapping, Rape, or Murder that Crosses State Lines
- Assassination of the President or Vice President
- Immigration Offenses
The Statutes of Limitations of Federal Crimes
The statute of limitations is the period of time a criminal act can be legally prosecuted. A person who commits a crime with a three year statute, for instance, cannot be prosecuted after that three year period is up.
The statute of limitations for federal crimes varies. Certain federal crimes have no statute of limitations (meaning that these crimes can be prosecuted years or even decades after they are committed). The crimes with no statute include:
- Federal crimes that are punishable by the death penalty
- Certain federal crimes of terrorism
- Certain federal sex offenses (the passage of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006 mandated that no statute apply to these offenses)
The vast majority of other federal crimes must be prosecuted within five years from the time they were committed. Some exceptions apply, allowing for crimes to be prosecuted outside of the five-year window. These exceptions include:
- Certain immigration offenses
- Art theft
- Various crimes against financial institutions
- Other exceptions that may be made for cases involving child abuse, bankruptcy fraud, wartime fraud, or cases that have special circumstances
The Prosecution of Federal Crimes
Acts that are considered criminal at both the state and federal level may be prosecuted on either level. The decision regarding on which level to prosecute involves several factors. Yet, as a general rule, the crimes most often prosecuted in federal court include:
- Drug trafficking
- Organized crime
- Financial crime
- Large-scale fraud
- Crimes committed against federal officials
- Fraud against the United States of America
The crimes must often prosecuted in state court include crimes against the person (such as murder, rape, and assault) and crimes against property (such as theft and robbery). Generally, the state prosecutes more cases than the federal government does. However, there are certain offenses that can only be prosecuted in federal court. These include:
- Customs offenses
- Federal tax evasion (or other illegal acts regarding federal taxes)
State courts do not have as much jurisdiction as the federal government. The state of Colorado, for example, may only investigate and prosecute criminal acts that are committed inside of Colorado’s boundaries. The federal government, conversely, is within its rights to investigate and prosecute criminal acts committed anywhere inside of the U.S.
The Punishment for Federal Crimes
The vast majority of people accused of committing federal crimes plead guilty; in fact, over 90 percent of cases do not go to trial. This guilty plea is usually met with a plea bargain, a compromise between the defendant and the government that often results in leniency, a reduced charge, or a reduced sentence.
If the defendant pleads guilty (or is found guilty after trial), the judge determines the sentence by following federal sentencing guidelines. These guidelines take into consideration the crime that was committed, the level of the offense, as well as the criminal history of the defendant. While the judge is considering the sentence, he or she may consider all evidence produced at trial (if there was one), as well as all additional relevant information.
Sentences for federal crimes can vary drastically. Some sentences involve paying a fine or paying restitution to the victims of the crime, while other sentences involve probation or life without parole. The court may also enforce additional restrictions, such as drug testing and mandatory counseling.