Federal Crimes – What Makes a Crime Federal?

by | Aug 13, 2018 | Blog Posts, Federal Criminal Defense

Federal Crimes – when does a crime become federal?

Federal crimes – how, when, and why some criminal charges become federal crimes.federal crimes

Criminal charges can come in a wide variety of forms.  There are local crimes, state crimes, and federal crimes.   In general, violation of local criminal laws (ordinances) tend be the least severe (an example of a Charlotte criminal law violation is failure to pay a bus fair or Lightrail train fare.) State crimes tend to be the most numerous. Most criminal defense lawyers will see state crimes much more frequently than any other time because they are the most common. Federal crimes tend to be the most complicated to deal with. Federal crimes are prosecuted in federal court (click here to learn about federal court procedure). In this blog we will provide a small overview of what exactly federal crimes are.

What makes a particular crime federal?

Whether a crime is considered a state crime or federal crime depends on a number of factors.  Federal law is derived from the United States Constitution. The Constitution specifically limits the power of the federal government and gives most power to the states.  There are, however, certain areas that the federal government has complete authority over. This includes the context of federal criminal law and federal crimes.

Generally, there are three main reasons why crimes become federal crimes:

  • Crime is inherently federal
  • Crime was committed on federal land
  • Crimes that are tied to the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution
Crimes that are inherently federal

The Federal government has jurisdiction over certain areas and make and enforce the laws that are tied to those areas.  Most of these areas are expressly mentioned in the United States Constitution.  Some of those areas include:

  • Banks
  • Immigration
  • Patents
  • The postal service
  • The coinage of money
  • Bankruptcy
  • Federal taxes

Using some of these areas as examples: Robbing a bank will always be a federal crime.  Mail Fraud will always be a federal crime. Federal income tax fraud will always be a federal crime.

Crimes committed on federal land  

Just about any crime that would have otherwise been a state crime that is committed on federal land, becomes a federal crime.  This includes but is not limited to crimes committed:

  • At national parks
  • On an airplane
  • On an Indian reservation
  • In a federal courthouse
  • At a federal prison
  • On a military base

For example, while assault is typically a considered a state crime, an assault that occurs on an airplane would most likely be considered a federal crime.  As such, a DWI that is committed in a national park, would be a federal crime.

Crimes that are tied to the Commerce Clause

The United States Constitution has a provision in it known as the Commerce Clause.  In short, the Commerce Clause gives the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce (the movement and trade of goods and services between the different states).

The commerce clause has been broadly used in a criminal context to make a state crime, a federal crime.  The federal government has the right to make some of these crimes federal but are not necessarily required to so.

Examples of use of the commerce clause to allege a federal crime   

  • The government alleges that a defendant runs or is a part of an operation that distributes drugs in multiple states
  • A murder takes place at an airport or at a hotel near the airport
  • An employee of a company that has offices in multiple states is accused of running a billing scam


Federal crimes can be very serious and they can be very complicated to deal with.  If you have been charged with a federal crime, contact us.  At Gilles Law we handle Federal crimes in North Carolina as well as federal crimes in South Carolina.

DISCLAIMER – This forum is intended for general questions and comments about the particular law or topic. Comments are public and are not protected by confidentiality or attorney-client privilege; therefore, they can be used against you in court. Please refrain from revealing your identify or specifics about any actual criminal case. No attorney-client relationship is created in this forum.

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