What Is a Federal Crime?

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In the hierarchy of criminal offenses, a federal crime is perceived as the most serious, and the punishments are the most severe. Federal courts are steered by a different set of sentencing guidelines than state courts, which means that federal sentences tend to be much longer than state sentences, even if the crimes are similar. Most criminal prosecutions are state prosecutions, for breaking state law. Federal crimes are usually tied to some sort of national issue such as wiretapping, drug trafficking and computer crime.

List of Federal Crimes

If you commit an act that violates a U.S. federal law, then you've committed a federal crime. These crimes are investigated by federal law enforcement and prosecuted in federal courts. There are hundreds of categories of crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction; most have the national interest at stake, such as a crime that takes place on federal property, immigration offenses and crimes that cross states lines. Here are some examples:

  • Terrorism
  • Cyber crime
  • Organized crime
  • White-collar crime
  • Immigration offenses
  • Drug trafficking
  • Airplane hijacking
  • Trespassing on federal property
  • Child abuse, pornography and exploitation
  • Attempting to overthrow the government
  • Identity theft
  • Credit card fraud and wire fraud
  • Kidnapping, rape or murder that crosses state lines.

Is a Felony the Same as a Federal Crime?

Crimes fall into two categories: felonies and misdemeanors. A felony is a category of crime in which the punishment is incarceration for more than one year. Misdemeanors carry sentences of one year or less. A federal crime can be a felony or a misdemeanor – it depends what punishment Congress has set. Similarly, a felony can be a state felony or a federal felony. It depends on which law you have violated, who is charging you and who the crime is against. Many crimes, such as arson and bank robbery, are felonies under both state and federal law. In these cases, prosecutors must decide if the case should be tried in federal or state courts.

What Is a Federal Crime of Violence?

A federal crime of violence is one that includes the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force against a person or property, or where there's a substantial risk that physical force may be used in the course of committing a felony. So, while the crime of burglary might constitute an ordinary felony, if the burglar threatened to beat the homeowner or brandished a weapon, the crime would be elevated to a crime of violence. The result is a much harsher punishment. Carrying a firearm during a crime of violence, for example, can add between five and 30 years to the sentence. The law is especially hard on so-called "career criminals" who receive significantly enhanced sentences if they've committed a crime of violence before.

Investigating and Punishing Federal Crimes

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is responsible to investigating federal crimes, along with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives and the Secret Services for offenses within their remit. An offender sentenced to do time for a felony will be sent to a federal prison. Because of the nature of federal crimes, federal prisons tend to house a large population of white-collar and non-violent offenders. State prisons, by contrast, typically house more offenders who are convicted of violent crimes.


  • A federal crime is simply an act that has been made illegal by federal law, passed by Congress. A large universe of crimes fits within this definition.