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Federal Crimes: Criminal Court Jurisdiction

May 5th, 2006

By Brian Barrido, Attorney at Law and Jay Mykytiuk

Most criminal offenses are charged under state laws, investigated by local and state law enforcement agencies, and tried in state courts. However, a crime is a federal offense if it is made illegal by statute or if it occurs on U.S. federal property. These crimes are investigated by the federal agencies such as the FBI, and prosecuted in federal courts.

More Crimes Considered Federal Offenses

Historically, almost all crimes were handled by the states. Only a small number of crimes involving offenses against the country, such as treason or bribery of federal officials, were prosecuted under federal law. But in recent years Congress has passed numerous statutes that mandate long federal prison terms for crimes ranging from drug dealing to kidnapping. There are now over 100 categories of offenses that are considered to be federal crimes. This includes over 4000 individual offenses. Examples include:

  • Counterfeiting
  • Drug Manufacturing
  • Drug Possession/Sales
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Gun Law Violations
  • Health Care Fraud
  • Immigration Law Violations
  • Kidnapping
  • Mail Fraud
  • Money Laundering
  • RICO Crimes
  • Securities Fraud
  • Social Security Fraud
  • Tax Crimes
  • Terrorism
  • Weapons Charges
  • Wire fraud

Crimes Committed on Federal Property

In addition to the long list of specific federal crimes, any crime that is committed on federal property is subject to federal prosecution and comes under the jurisdiction of the federal court system. This includes crimes committed in government buildings, airports, national wildlife refuges, national forests, military installations, and Veteran Affairs medical centers. For example, an assault committed in a post office will be prosecuted under federal law, even though there is no federal assault law.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines Harsher than State

Whether a crime is prosecuted under state or federal law is important, mostly due to differences in sentencing guidelines. Federal sentencing is controlled by the United States Code and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Under the Guidelines, a federal judge is required to sentence according to a formula, which consists of a combination of the offense and the defendant’s criminal history. Judges must impose pre-determined minimum mandatory sentences and they have virtually no authority to deviate from sentencing guidelines even if they feel that the sentence is excessive.

Partly due to the federal sentencing guidelines, federal sentences are often considerably harsher than the equivalent state sentence. For instance, a United States Sentencing Commission study found that drug offenders prosecuted in federal court served approximately 84 months in prison, while those prosecuted in state courts usually serve an average of 20 months.

Because navigating federal law can be challenging, it is important that you are represented by an attorney who is familiar with federal court procedures. An attorney who can navigate the complicated federal sentencing guidelines may be able to obtain a reduced sentence or even dismissal.


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