An Overview on Federal Criminal Law

What you should know when facing a federal charge

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 1, 2023

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You’ve been arrested for federal offenses. Now what? You probably know basics like some of the rights you can invoke if the police want to talk to you and that you can have a jury of your peers. While those are two important aspects of criminal law, a lot happens in between.

Federal charges add more nuance to your case than state crimes, including the possibility of two prosecutions for federal and state laws. The following overview will give you an example of situations that can provide the federal government with authority to prosecute your case.

Federal Crimes at a Glance

Criminal laws are created and enforced on the state level for the most part. However, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over several issues outlined in the Constitution. These issues fall under what’s called “federal subject matter jurisdiction.” There are also special circumstances that can give the federal government jurisdiction over crimes that generally fall under only state jurisdiction.


These are some of the more common federal crimes.

  • Criminal Organizations – Racketeering (18 USC Sec. 1961)
  • Money Laundering (18 USC Sec. 1956)
  • Federal Tax Evasion (26 USC Sec. 7201)
  • Drug Trafficking (21 USC Sec. 841)
  • Federal Human Smuggling (8 USC Sec. 1324)
  • Bank Robbery (18 USC Sec. 2113)
  • Sexual Exploitation of Children (18 USC Sec. 2251)
  • Forgery/Counterfeiting (18 USC Sec. 470)

Federal Subject Matter Jurisdiction

In Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, you will find a list of issues over which the federal government has exclusive authority. These issues include immigration, taxation, the postal service, and regulating money.

This jurisdiction gives federal courts the authority to handle criminal cases involving immigration and customs violations, counterfeiting money, tax evasion, and mail fraud. The federal government also has the authority to regulate commerce, and this authority has been used as the basis for legislation like federal drug laws.

Federal Property and Officers

Even when a crime doesn’t invoke federal law, it can still fall under the jurisdiction of federal courts if it involves federal property or federal officers.

For example, if someone is murdered in a national park, that would be a federal crime because of the nature of national parks. This applies to more minor crimes like misdemeanor theft in places under federal jurisdiction like military bases or reservations. Finally, federal law comes into play if a federal law enforcement officer like a DEA or FBI agent is assaulted.

Multiple States

If a crime has victims in multiple states or state lines are crossed during the commission of the crime, then federal courts will have jurisdiction. An example is fraud that happens online because it quickly reaches people in multiple states. Another example is when someone is kidnapped in state A and brought across the border to state B.

A common issue in these cases is “concurrent jurisdiction,” which is when state courts and federal courts both have jurisdiction. There is no constitutional limitation on both federal and state prosecution happening simultaneously or one after the other. The “double jeopardy” clause only applies to the same offense, and federal and state statutes are considered different offenses.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Broadly

The penalties for federal crimes are typically more severe than state criminal charges. Federal judges follow strict sentencing guidelines using federal statutes drafted by congress. Federal cases can be further compounded depending on the circumstances of your case.

Suppose that a citizen has been convicted on a child pornography charge. The federal statutes penalizing this crime call for prolonged jail time in federal prison. However, federal judges will also consider factors including (but not limited to) the number of images the offender possesses, the nature of the photos (whether they were sadistic in nature), and what kind of technology the offender used. These factors and others can lead to a federal judge adding more time to an offender’s already lengthy sentence.

Federal convictions generally lead to harsher and longer sentences than state charges. This is due in part to how little discretion federal prosecutors and judges possess in deviating from the federally mandated guidelines. There are mandatory minimum sentences that can’t be mitigated via a plea deal or otherwise.

Additionally, the vast majority convicted offenders sentenced to jail time on federal charges end up serving most of their prison sentences. This is different from state sentencing, where many convicted offenders are allowed to leave their prison term before completing the majority of their sentence.

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

When facing the uncertainty of a criminal charge, a strong attorney-client relationship is crucial. It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a criminal defense attorney with experience in federal court. Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney or law firm for the first time:

  1. How do state and federal criminal laws differ?
  2. Can I be charged in state court if I was acquitted in federal court?
  3. Can you be charged with a federal crime without knowing?
  4. What crimes go to federal court?

Who is the prosecutor in a federal criminal case?

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Federal prosecutions can be more complicated than state prosecutions because they involve federal constitutional law and federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors. In some cases, you might even be subject to prosecution in both state and federal court. The consequences in these courts can vary widely, and you sometimes have different rights. A lawyer with experience in federal court will be invaluable as you navigate the differences between state and federal court.

A lawyer will anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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