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Federal Criminal Law

Federal Criminal Law is a almost unbelievably complex. Scholars believe that the number of federal crimes is essentially infinite.1 And that does not even begin to look at criminal procedure, defined in both the code and case law, in addition to the numerous other laws regarding federal crimes, everything from secret FISA courts to the federal sentencing guidelines.

With that said, the goal of the Federal section of the Criminal Law Guide is not to address every issue, but only examine the laws that are typically the most relevant and commonly fought over in federal criminal proceedings.

If you have been charged with a federal criminal offense, you may want to learn more about our federal criminal defense practice. If you are only wanting to learn more about federal criminal law, you are in the right place already.

Federal Criminal Law is found primarily in Title 18 of the United States Code.
Title 18 is a massive body of law, and it is very difficult to understand not just each code section, but how they all fit together. In addition, federal case law is important in understanding how federal criminal law works.

Overview of the Federal Criminal System

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 (abbreviated AUSAs). These US Attorneys work with federal law enforcement like the FBI, DHS and Secret Service to investigate people for violations of federal criminal law and subsequently prosecute the suspected individuals

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 try to persuade the judges that there is some evidence that you have committed the crime that the government is accusing you of committing. The judge will also hear arguments, and ultimately decide, whether to hold you in jail while the process continues.

In order for you to be convicted, and ultimately sentenced, the government would have to prove its case to a “petite jury” comprised of people residing in 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. Usually in the federal system, however, this consideration is very small (though not always).

Unlike the state system, however, if you are convicted, you are not entitled to a jury punishment hearing. The judge will sentence you, and this sentencing is typically done according to the federal sentencing guidelines. How the guidelines may apply to your case is frequently 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.


Legal References:

1Debunking Claims of Over-Federalization of Criminal Law, Emory Law Journal, Volume 62

Published by Criminal Defense Attorney on and last modified