A federal crime of federal offense in the U.S is prosecuted under federal criminal law, which may vary considerably from the state criminal law, where the act was committed. Federal crimes include offenses that occur on federal property, that extend to multiple states, that are not specifically penalized by a state or are not considered a crime within a state at all. Federal crimes are generally more profound and complex as compared to everyday criminal offenses. They often require elaborate investigation resources, which may not be available at the state level.

Living in the U.S, you may commit a crime that is prosecuted at both state and federal level. Federal crimes are investigated by Federal agencies, such as the FBI, IRS, Secret Service, DEA, Border Patrol, or ATF. On the other hand, state crimes are resolved by state agencies, such as the local police department, city prosecutors, and county judges. As some crimes fall into both categories, they can be subject to double prosecution and joint investigation, thereby being summoned to state and federal court for trials. Federal trials are a lot more formal and organized than state trials, as they employ stricter laws and issue harsher penalties.

Given that Federal prosecution is supplemented by several high profile governmental investigation agencies, it is no surprise that it is not a regular occurrence. Criminal Defense Attorney reveals that almost 97% of all criminal cases in the U.S are solved at state level.

Examples of Federal Crimes

Federal crimes are often associated with multiple states and municipalities, which is why local authorities of a city or county cannot handle them.

  • Counterfeiting Currency
  • Illegal immigration/residency
  • Drug Trafficking
  • Carjacking
  • Kidnapping
  • Hacking/E-Scams
  • Identity Theft
  • Offenses on Federal property or against Federal authorities
  • Weapons and Human Trafficking
  • Child Pornography
  • Tax Evasion
  • Aircraft Hijacking
  • Animal Cruelty
  • Violation of the Espionage Act
  • Valuable Art Theft (from museums)
  • Credit Card Fraud
  • Bank Robbery
  • Violation of Patriot act

You may have observed that most of the mentioned crimes in the list are too complicated to be committed by a single criminal; large underground mafias, which are very difficult to track and restrain, plan, manage, and execute these crimes. Another point worth noticing is that many white collar crimes fall under this category, which proves the high stakes of corporate corruption.

Examples of State Crimes

Criminal offenses that violate the law within a single state can be prosecuted by local agencies. Most of these crimes are straightforward, i.e. there is rarely a mastermind in the running for a court trial. Nonetheless, prosecution at state level can also be very tiresome and problematic. Perpetrators may deceive law and escape penalties is there is insufficient evidence to incriminate them. The following crimes are more of umbrella terms that be categorized into a number of different offenses.

  • Theft/Robbery (Shoplifting, residential break-ins, pickpocketing)
  • Homicide (Murder, Manslaughter)
  • Assault and Battery (Harassment, Threats, Rape, Beating/Trashing)
  • DUI/DWI crimes (Drunk Driving, Driving under the influence of Drugs)
  • Domestic Violence (Physical and Mental Abuse of an intimate partner or family member)
  • Vandalism (destruction of private/public property, illegal street art/graffiti)


Crimes like Robbery and Kidnapping could be considered a State or Federal offense, depending on the underlying circumstances. Stealing bank money that is FDIC insured or money laundering is subject to Federal charges. Similarly, kidnapping that involves carrying the victim across the state’s boundaries will also become a Federal crime. Sometimes a crime is punishable by State and Federal court, one after the other. Although the Fifth Amendment of the U.S constitution does not allow multiple trials for a single misconduct, there are exceptions.

The Double Jeopardy Clause states that you cannot be tried for the same offense more than once. However, the law only prohibits a second prosecution by the same jurisdiction. Federal and State court are independent entities, so each of them can legally prosecute you for the same crime.

That being said, it is rare that one jurisdiction will be interested in trying your case after it has been wrapped up by the other, as double trial is not a favored practice. Typically, it is not feasible to waste legal resources on a crime that is already dissected and resolved. Nonetheless, it is permissible in this scenario and an unusual state of affairs could make it happen.  

Comparison of Protocol

The basics for managing Federal and State cases are relatable, but variations in protocol and principles exist. Being accused of a Federal crime is much more serious than being arrested for a State crime. Therefore, it is necessary to hire a capable criminal defense attorney to represent your case. Your lawyer must be qualified to appear in Federal court as experience limited to state cases could hinder your success. Federal agencies implement more profound investigation and their approach to forensic evidence is very precise.

The minimum punishment or criminal sentence is much tougher than that assigned at state court for an offense of identical nature; moreover, the prisons for federal criminals are discrete and establish higher discipline. The local governor appoints state judges on a merit basis, and they sit for re-election by the end of a term, which is approximately six years in most states. On the contrary, the President appoints federal judges for life, which grants them more power and influence.