Federal Criminal Law: An Overview

Federal Criminal Law

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United States Attorneys (abbreviated USAs) are in charge of enforcing federal law within their respective geographic districts. The individual attorneys who do the work are called Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs). These US Attorneys work with federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, DHS, and Secret Service to investigate people for violations of federal criminal law and subsequently prosecute the suspected individuals.

The consequences for violations of federal criminal offenses can be severe. Conviction rates in federal court are high because the prosecution is supported by an extensive investigation in which multiple federal agencies may participate.

Just like the state criminal justice system, the US Attorney cannot convict you on their own. Instead, federal criminal law requires the government to bring you before neutral arbiters, called Federal Judges, and attempt to persuade the judges that there is evidence of you committing the crime they have accused you of. The judge will also hear arguments and decide whether to hold you in jail while the process continues.

In order for you to be convicted and sentenced, the government would have to prove its case to a “petit jury” composed of people residing in the district where the court is sitting. However, many people waive this right and plead guilty instead of going to trial. People do this usually because they get some consideration from the government for their guilty plea. However, this consideration is usually very small in the federal system.

Unlike the state system, if you are convicted of a federal crime, you are not entitled to a jury punishment hearing. The judge will sentence you, and this sentencing is typically done according to federal sentencing guidelines. How the guidelines may apply to your case will be disputed by your attorney, the government attorneys, and the United States Probation Office. Ultimately, a judge will decide how the guidelines will apply, and the judge may sentence you above or below those guidelines.

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What makes an offense a federal crime?

Crimes that violate US federal laws are considered federal crimes. These laws are outlined in Title 18 of the United States Code.[1] The federal government has jurisdiction when criminal actions cross state lines or take place on federal land or involve federal employees. These crimes are investigated by the United States government, and several agencies may be involved in one investigation, such as:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

If you’re approached by a federal agent, you are advised to seek legal counsel immediately. Divulging information without representation may make it more challenging to fight your charges. The sooner a federal defense attorney becomes involved in your case, the greater your chance of achieving a successful resolution. If your attorney becomes involved during an investigation, it may be possible to avoid criminal charges or face lesser charges.

How are federal crimes different from state crimes?

Federal cases involve more intricate procedures than state cases. You will need an attorney with a solid understanding of federal court rules and procedures to succeed in court. When pursuing state charges, state prosecutors work with local and state officials to prosecute crimes, while federal prosecutors work with government agencies when developing cases against defendants. This puts defendants without a solid defense at a considerable disadvantage in federal court.

Compared to state cases, federal cases are heard in federal courts by federal judges. These cases may take longer to resolve since federal agencies have more resources to pursue investigations. As a defendant, a federal case will typically put a greater strain on your day-to-day life than a state case.

Although each state follows its own set of laws, the US follows one criminal code. Often, penalties for a federal conviction are much harsher for first-time offenders. They may include years in a federal prison, fines in the thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, mandatory minimum sentences, and restitution. It is your attorney’s duty to help you avoid the worst consequences of a federal criminal charge.

What are some examples of federal criminal charges in Texas?

Examples of federal criminal offenses found in the US Code include:

  • Bank robbery
  • Bribery
  • Child pornography
  • Conspiracy
  • Counterfeiting
  • Cybercrimes
  • Drug trafficking
  • Embezzlement
  • Healthcare fraud
  • Human trafficking
  • Identity theft
  • Intellectual property theft
  • Insurance fraud
  • Kidnapping
  • Mail and wire fraud
  • Mortgage fraud
  • Obstruction of justice
  • Securities fraud
  • Tax evasion
  • Terrorism
  • Weapons charges

These are just some of the crimes the government may prosecute. In many cases, investigating government agencies may pursue several charges against an individual.


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