What Makes a Crime a Federal Offense?

Federal crimes and state crimes can seem indistinguishable from one another until you look more closely at each one. The Florida state legislature has jurisdiction to enact laws, including criminal laws, that apply throughout Florida’s own territory. At Florida’s borders with Georgia and Alabama, Florida law stops having any effect. 


But if only state laws existed, suspected criminals could cross a state’s border into another state to escape from responsibility for a crime committed in the first state. In addition to that obvious problem for law enforcement, states throughout the nation experienced similar difficulties dealing with widespread criminal activity that no single state could police effectively. The U.S. Congress recognized that the entire nation had common crime problems that it was in the national interest to address. 


Just a few examples of crimes common to many states but impossible for one to solve alone include interstate trafficking of drugs, a wide-reaching fraud scheme involving victims in multiple states, bank robbers who fled from state to state, and kidnappings in which the victim was moved across state lines. 



Now, federal criminal jurisdiction covers these general categories: 


  • Crimes committed on federal property (military base, veteran’s hospital, federal government building, etc.) or assaults on federal employees, 
  • Crimes involving the violation of a person’s federal civil rights, certain hate crimes, etc. 
  • Crimes involving misrepresentation, fraud, or deceit of the federal government or a federal agency (federal tax fraud, false claims to Medicare, fraudulent Social Security claims, etc.), 
  • Interstate criminal activity (drug smuggling, kidnapping, crimes on airplanes in flight, etc.), 
  • Crime where the activity victimizes people across state borders (identity theft, internet scams, etc.), 
  • Crime involving national borders (illegal immigration cartels, human trafficking, smuggling through customs, etc.) 
  • Terrorism-related crimes 


Generally, Congress and the federal government stick to the prosecution of crimes involving interstate activity or entities that Congress decided impact interstate commerce or a national interest. 


Can You Be Prosecuted in Both State Court and Federal Court for the Same Criminal Conduct? 


Yes. The law does permit the federal government and the state government to prosecute someone in both jurisdictions for the same conduct.  


Why is that not Double Jeopardy? 


The legal doctrine is called Dual Sovereignty.  


The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids a person from being “twice put in jeopardy of life or limb for the same offense.”  


But since one offense is a violation of the sovereign state of Florida’s criminal statute and is also a violation of a criminal statute enacted by the sovereign government of the United States, the person is being tried for violating two different statutes in two different jurisdictions. Their conduct is alleged to have violated both statutes. 


In February 2022, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Denezpi v. United States, 142 S. Ct. 1838 (2022) that “An offense defined by one sovereign is necessarily different from an offense defined by another, even when the offenses have identical elements. Thus, a person can be successively prosecuted for the two offenses without offending the Clause.” 


What Crimes Does the Federal Government Usually Prosecute? 


The United States Code now has several parts. There are 2,725 different sections, each of which can identify more than one criminal offense listed in subparts and subparagraphs. 


While this blog post can’t describe all of the federal crimes prosecuted across the country by the United States Department of Justice, we should remember that federal crimes can be investigated by different agencies, each of which can provide prosecution evidence to the U.S. Attorney: FBI, IRS, DEA, ICE, SEC, etc. 


The types of crimes we tend to see most often in federal court prosecutions are these: 


  • White-collar crime: This group of offenses could include everything from Medicare fraud involving patients, doctors, pharmacists, and medical device manufacturers who file claims for reimbursement for services or products that were either not provided or were provided without medical necessity. Other white-collar crimes include bribery of public officials, jurors, or witnesses, money laundering, securities fraud, etc. 


  • Tax evasion: The number of schemes individuals and commercial enterprises devise to unlawfully reduce their tax obligations or to inaccurately claim tax rebates, refunds, and offsets is remarkable. The federal government has a special interest in prosecuting attempts to cheat the government out of its tax revenue, partially because the government runs on that money, and partially because other taxpayers are paying what they owe. 


  • Drug trafficking: It may be that the largest number of federal prosecutions involve indictments of defendants accused of drug trafficking, that is interstate transportation or conspiracy to transport controlled substances. The amount of drugs involved, and the individuals’ previous criminal involvement, often results in extremely long prison sentences following a conviction. 


  • Child Pornography: Federal law enforcement agencies focus a great deal of attention and financial resources working to detect and prosecute people involved in the sexual exploitation of children, producing, possessing, and distributing images depicting children in sexually explicit poses, and performing or being used for sexual activity. The federal criminal statute permits a separate indictment and a separate sentence to be imposed for each image. In one recent case, the defendant was sentenced to over 100 years in prison. 


  • Cyber Crimes: Federal authorities are busier than ever investigating and prosecuting cases in which computers, telephones, and other digital equipment are used to victimize people who are fooled and deceived by internet criminals. Email scams, fishing schemes, fraudulent employment schemes, identity theft, and many other dishonest conspiracies are being perpetrated against some gullible and even some fairly savvy victims.  


  • Immigration crimes: Many immigrants are prosecuted in federal court for illegally reentering the U.S. after previously being removed, deported, or excluded from entry. While many immigration law violations are civil in nature and result in administrative proceedings only, a large number of others are criminally prosecuted for illegal reentry.  


Learn More > How Long is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Crimes?  


Federal Defense Attorneys 


Whether it’s the federal or state law enforcement agencies that investigate and prosecute you or your family member, the most urgent action you can take to protect an accused is to contact the most experienced, skilled, and accessible criminal defense lawyer near you. If you need defense in federal court or state court, contact a Florida Board Certified Criminal Defense Lawyer who works in the courts every day. Don’t trust a lawyer who has not been in the trenches in federal court or state court. 


Call Tampa’s experienced federal court criminal defense team at Stechschulte Nell Law at 813-280-1244. 


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