Federal Crimes--An Introduction:
What constitutes a federal crime is specified in the United States Code, and in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Federal crimes are investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They are prosecuted by an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA). Prosecution of federal crimes is governed by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Admissibility of evidence is governed by the Federal Rules of Evidence. Congress criminalizes actions and, on occasion, failures to act, in various kinds of matters. We give three examples here. There are others.
The first kind of matter is where a direct federal interest is involved. Tax fraud and tax evasion are obvious examples. Assassinating, or conspiring to assassinate, a federal official is another. Still another example is mail fraud. Note that crimes in this situation are very often State crimes also. For example, when someone assassinates a federal official, he will likely be simultaneously violating State laws that tend to discourage murder. So in that situation the alleged assassin can be subjected to separate prosecutions in both State and federal courts. The United States Supreme Court has held that such multiple prosecutions do not violate Constitutional protections against double jeopardy.
Another kind of matter where Acts of Congress define federal crimes concerns actions that occur outside the territorial jurisdiction of any State. Those areas include vessels on any of the Great Lakes, lands reserved for the use of the United States, aircraft in flight over the high seas, and places outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Title 18, Section 7 of the United States Code refers to such areas as the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” Acts of Congress also define crimes, and jurisdictions, in situations relating to events aboard, or relating to, aircraft. Title 49, Section 46501 of the United States Code refers to such areas as the “special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States.” Congress defines crimes in such areas because, well, because it can. Thus under both 18 U.S.C. 113 and 49 U.S.C. 46506, for example, federal courts would have jurisdiction over a complaint alleging assault of a United States national aboard a Mexican airline flying over the Pacific Ocean.
A third area where Congress defines federal crimes concerns activities that occur within the boundaries of a State, but on federal lands. Activities at issue here are those that, but for their location, would violate State laws, but have no specific federal law counterpart. These locations would include federal parks and forests inside a State. Sandy Hook National Park is an example of such a location in New Jersey. McGuire Air Force Base, and Picatinny Arsenal are other examples. Title 18, Section 13 of the United States Code covers this situation. What 18 U.S.C. 13 specifies is that activites that would violate laws of the State where federal land is located are “assimilated” into federal law. The federal courts then use the text of the assimilated State law, and State court decisions that interpret it. Thus it becomes a federal crime, but using the law as passed and interpreted by the State. This assimilation is not limited to crimes. 18 U.S.C. 13 also assimilates traffic offenses.
Sources and Bases of Federal Criminal Laws
Traditionally, federal crimes are defined by Acts of Congress. Authority of Congress to define federal crimes comes from the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides Congress with the power “To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;” and “To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas.” The Constitution does not explicitly give Congress the power to specify what constitutes crimes outside of those limited areas. However, Congress uses two provisions in the Constitution to justify passage of limitless criminal statutes.
The first provision is another of the powers defined in Article I, Section 8. That provision authorizes Congress “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Under an (to put it mildly) expansive interpretation of its powers under this Interstate Commerce Clause, Congress has defined crimes that affect almost every conceivable human activity. One everyday example is that Congress includes home grown marijuana for personal use to be an activity that affects interstate commerce.
The second provision is still another power defined in Article I, Section 8. That provision, the last provision in that Section, gives Congress the Constitutional power, “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” This clause is referred to occasionally as the “Necessary and Proper” clause, and occasionally as the “Elastic Clause.” Our Supreme Court has interpreted this clause, combined with the Commerce Clause, to give almost unfettered reign to Congress to define what constitutes a federal crime. This trend began during the “New Deal” of President Franklin Roosevelt. It has continued steadily since then. The index of the Federal Criminal Code and Rules, 2014 Revised Edition, published by Thomson Reuters, consumes 227 pages. And that's just the index!
What we've covered to this point are crimes defined by Acts of Congress. Congress has, however, delegated to federal regulatory agencies the power to also define crimes. Agencies have taken that ball and run with it. Thus literally thousands or tens of thousands of regulations promulgated by federal agencies define federal crimes. The number of such agency-defined crimes is so high that nobody knows even how many exist! The crimes that a federal regulatory agency can define are limited to the kinds of crime that Congress authorizes the agency to adopt. Those crimes, in turn, are limited to crimes that Congress itself can specify. As just seen, however, that is not much of a limitation.
Prosecution of Federal Crimes
Federal crimes are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, the DEA, IRS, the BATF, the SEC, and on and on and on. Complaints involving federal crimes are handled in federal courts. The federal courts that exercise general federal jurisdiction are typically United States District Courts. Jurisdiction may also be exercised (in appropriate cases) by courts martial in military courts. Judges of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sit in Newark, Trenton, and Camden.
Another kind of federal judicial officer is called a “magistrate judge.” Magistrate judges try petty offenses. The maximum fine for a petty offense is $5,000.00. The maximum term of imprisonment for a petty offense is six months. Persons charged with petty offenses do not have a right to trial by jury.
Magistrate judges may also try federal misdemeanors. They can try federal misdemeanors, however, only when the district court delegates that authority to the magistrate judge, AND the defendant in any particular case agrees to be so tried. The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey does authorize magistrate judges to try federal misdemeanor cases. The maximum term of imprisonment for a federal misdemeanor conviction is one year. Fines for federal misdemeanor convictions can be as much as $250,000.00. United States Magistrate Judges for the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sit in various locations beyond the Newark, Trenton, and Camden locations where the United States District Judges sit.
Criminal Lawyers in New Jersey™
Allan Marain is a New Jersey counsellors at law who represent defendants charged with federal crimes. He has forty-five years experience. He is available to discuss federal charges that you have, or that you may be facing. Your initial consultation incurs no obligation. He invites your call.