What is a Federal Offense?

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  • Originally Written By: Christopher John
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 18 January 2020
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A federal offense is generally any type of conduct that a national government has determined is a crime for its citizens or residents. The word “federal” is often associated with the United States, but in this context it has the more universal meaning of “national.” Overarching, national governments can and often do have laws regulating conduct. Sometimes, these work alongside or in addition to local laws. In most cases the national laws are stronger and the penalties stiffer, but not always. One of the defining features of these sorts of laws is that they apply everywhere within the country’s borders, and are prosecuted uniformly no matter where the courts or suspects are located. Different countries have different standards when it comes to how these sorts of offenses are defined and the penalties that attach. A lot depends on the region and the governance structure in place.

Types of Crimes Included

In most cases, something is a federal crime based on how it is defined in the structural laws, not because of the subject matter it involves. The category can accordingly be very broad. Sometimes included offenses are very serious, like murder and kidnapping, but other more minor crimes can also be considered under the “federal offense” umbrella.


In some places major and minor crimes are differentiated with the terms “felony” and “misdemeanor.” A felony crime is something punishable by time in prison, usually at least a year; the category typically includes things such as drug trafficking, acts of terrorism, bank robbery, and counterfeiting. Misdemeanors are usually more minor, and sentences are accordingly less severe in most instances. Things like drug possession and repeated traffic violations usually fall within this category.

Governmental Authority

In most cases, the power to define and prosecute federal crimes comes from the national laws at the highest level. In the U.S,, for example, the federal government is empowered through the U.S. Constitution to establish both civil and criminal laws. For criminal matters, the federal government decides what type of conduct or actions will constitute a federal crime within its borders, often through Acts of Congress or other laws that are written and voted on as part of a democratic, collaborative process. For example, the Mann Act is a federal law that makes it a federal crime to transport a female from one state to another or to a foreign nation for purposes of prostitution or any “immoral purpose.”

Not all governments have such straightforward and transparent processes. In some places, laws are created more of less on the will of those in power, and can be subject to change fairly easily. Most governments with established federal laws have a specific process that sets out how those laws can come into being, though. Researching a specific jurisdiction’s system is the best way to understand how laws are created in defined within those borders.

Definition and Delineation

There can similarly be a lot of difference when it comes to where in the printed laws federal crimes are set out and how, exactly, they are defined. The majority of federal crimes in the U.S. are defined under Title 18 of the U.S. Code. Federal tax crimes, however, are contained in other sections of federal law. Further, Congress has the authority to delegate power to administrative agencies to establish regulations. These regulations may establish criminal offenses and impose penalties. Thus, a violation of a federal regulation enacted by the U.S. Treasury, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the Federal Trade Commission among various other agencies may also constitute a federal offense. Most countries have similarly complex systems, which is why the legal systems and judicial processes often have so many different advisers and players.

Interaction with Local Laws

Most countries also have local laws, sometimes known as civil laws, that set out crimes defined by local jurisdictions — states, provinces, or regional territories. Sometimes these overlap with or build upon national laws, and people can sometimes face charges in both local and national courts when they’re charged with crimes.

Prosecution is usually local in any event, particularly in larger countries. Most crimes in the U.S., for instance, fall under the jurisdiction of the state where the offense occurs. In other words, must criminal acts are considered under the jurisdiction of the individual state. The federal government, however, has the power to determine what types of crime constitute a federal offense. There must be a specific provision in the Constitution or enabling legislation enacted by Congress that empowers the federal government to regulate a particular area; in general, however, the federal government cannot simply take away a state’s power to regulate activity that occurs within its boundaries.


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Post 2

Federal crimes are a pretty huge deal, and most people don’t seem to really understand the difference between breaking federal laws and state laws.

Both are serious, naturally, but messing with the big boys just isn’t smart.

For instance, my husband is a correctional officer and according to federal law there are certain things that correctional officers cannot do. Some of them seem harmless, like taking a gift from an inmate.

However, if an officer is caught engaging in something like that, not only do they lose their job they also carry a federal offense with them when they leave.

They are trained in federal criminal laws, though, before they begin working with inmates.

Post 1

Wow – so if I understand this correctly, the FBI is like the United States of America’s police headquarters. That is pretty awesome.

I’m always watching all of these FBI and CIA shows, but never really understood that about them.

Does that mean that if a person is considered a federal criminal that the FBI is coming for them?

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