Federal Crimes vs. State Crimes – Differences You Need to Know

Gavel and American flag depicting Federal Crimes vs. State Crimes

How do you know which crimes are state crimes and which are federal crimes?

Sometimes television shows have federal law enforcement bodies, such as the FBI, investigating the same types of crimes as police departments. Since we tend to know less about how these agencies operate, it can be confusing.

Cases Investigated by Federal Organizations

Federal criminal cases are investigated by these organizations:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
  • Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • Secret Service

What about a crime like murder? It must be illegal at the state level and at the federal level.

How is it prosecuted in that case? We will get to the answer to that question. The answer is that federal agencies do investigate many of the same types of crimes that are prosecuted at the state level. In addition, there are crimes that are only illegal at the federal level.

Federal Crimes

Let’s look at crimes that are considered federal crimes:

  • Terrorism
  • Counterintelligence Crime
  • Cybercrime
  • Public Corruption
  • Civil Rights Violations
  • Organized Crime
  • White-Collar Crime
  • Art, Cargo, Jewelry, and Gem Theft
  • Bank Robbery
  • Indian Country Crime
  • Drug Offenses
  • Violent Crimes Against Children
  • Kidnapping, Rape, or Murder that Crosses State Lines
  • Assassination of the President or Vice President
  • Immigration Offenses

Our government is the only body bringing criminal charges against any person. This is unlike civil charges, which can be brought by individuals against other individuals.

The decision to prosecute at a state level or federal level is based on factors very numerous and complicated. However, generally, the crimes prosecuted in state courts are crimes against persons such as murder, rape and assault, and crimes against property, like robbery.

When a crime like murder crosses state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the FBI.

Crimes Prosecuted in Federal Court

Here are the crimes most often or always prosecuted in federal court:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Organized crime
  • Financial crime
  • Large-scale fraud
  • Crimes committed against federal officials
  • Fraud against the United States of America
  • Customs offenses
  • Federal tax evasion (or other illegal acts regarding federal taxes)
  • Espionage
  • Treason

The last four crimes listed are crimes that can only be prosecuted by the federal government. This is because they are crimes specifically against the federal government.

Penalties for Federal Crimes

It may interest you to know that over 90 percent of federal cases don’t go to trial and more people plead guilty to federal charges. This is because of the practice of offering defendants in federal trials a plea bargain in exchange for a guilty plea.

Usually, the defendant receives leniency: a reduced charge or a reduced sentence.


While our states tend to bring more charges to court and to try more crimes in court, our federal government employs several agencies to investigate criminal activity anywhere in the United States. This involves a variety of cyber crimes, public corruption, and organized crime.

If you are facing federal charges for any crime, you need an experienced defense attorney to advocate for your case.

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