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What are the Most Common Federal Crimes?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 23, 2024

While most criminal offenses are prosecuted at the state level as violations of individual state laws, federal law precedes certain crimes. 

This includes crimes that cross state boundaries, involve interstate or foreign commerce or federally controlled infrastructure, and crimes committed on federal lands (i.e., not under specific state jurisdiction). 

Most Common Federal Crimes
Common federal crimes cross state borders and affect interstate or foreign commerce.

When crimes are charged at the federal level, the potential penalties are usually greater than if the offense had violated equivalent state laws and had been prosecuted at the state level. 

While hundreds of federal statutes address criminal offenses, certain crimes occur more commonly than others or are more frequently targeted by federal prosecutors. 

Federal crimes are offenses that violate United States criminal laws. Federal courts also have jurisdiction over crimes committed across state lines, on federal property, or on an Indian reservation. Federal criminal charges are prosecuted in federal courts rather than local state courts by federal prosecutors and United States attorneys.

The common federal law enforcement agencies that investigate matters that involve anyone allegedly violating federal law include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and many others. 

Any defendants convicted on federal criminal charges will serve time in federal prison instead of a state-run facility like a county jail. Criminal cases at the federal level also involve both misdemeanors and felonies. Let's look at some of the most common offenses that get prosecuted at the federal level.

Drug Trafficking (21 U.S.C. § 841)

Drug trafficking is one of the most prosecuted federal crimes, encompassing the manufacturing, distribution, and dispensing of controlled substances illegally. This offense can involve a wide range of drugs, from:

The severity of penalties for drug trafficking can vary significantly based on the quantity of drugs involved, the geographic area of distribution, and whether the activity resulted in death or serious bodily harm.

18 U.S.C. 841 says, “It shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally— (1) to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense a controlled substance; or (2 )to create, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to distribute or dispense, a counterfeit substance.”

Fraud and Financial Crimes (18 U.S.C. § 1341, et al.)

Fraud and financial crimes cover a broad spectrum of activities that involve deception for personal or financial gain. This category includes, but is not limited to:

These crimes often involve complex schemes and the exploitation of financial systems, making them a high priority for federal law enforcement agencies. Depending on the scale of the fraud and the monetary losses incurred by victims, penalties can be severe, including substantial fines and lengthy prison sentences.

Tax Evasion (26 U.S.C. § 7201)

Tax evasion is a federal offense involving the deliberate avoidance of paying taxes owed to the government. This can include:

  • Underreporting income,
  • Hiding assets or
  • Making false claims on tax returns. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is vigilant in uncovering and prosecuting tax evasion, undermining the federal tax system, and shifting the fiscal burden onto law-abiding taxpayers.

26 U.S.C. 7201 says, “Any person who willfully attempts in any manner to evade or defeat any tax imposed by this title or the payment thereof shall, in addition to other penalties provided by law, be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not more than $100,000 ($500,000 in the case of a corporation), or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.

Firearms Offenses (18 U.S.C. § 922, § 924)

Federal law strictly regulates the ownership, sale, and transportation of firearms. Violations of these laws, such as:

  • Selling firearms without a license,
  • Possessing firearms as a convicted felon, or
  • Trafficking firearms across state lines. 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) enforces these regulations, with penalties including significant fines and imprisonment.

18 U.S.C. 922 says, “(a) It shall be unlawful for any person, except a licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce.”

Child Pornography (18 U.S.C. § 2251, § 2252)

The production, distribution, and possession of child pornography are grave federal offenses that carry harsh penalties. Federal authorities aggressively pursue these crimes due to their severe impact on victims and society. 

Advances in technology and the internet have led to increased vigilance and efforts to combat the proliferation of child pornography.

18 U.S.C. 2251 sexual exploitation of children says, “(a) Any person who employs, uses, persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any minor to engage in, or who has a minor assist any other person to engage in, or who transports any minor in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, or in the United States, with the intent that such minor engages in, any sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing any visual depiction of such conduct or for the purpose of transmitting a live visual depiction of such, shall be punished…

Human Trafficking (18 U.S.C. § 1581, et al.) 

Human trafficking involves using force, fraud, or coercion to exploit individuals for a variety of reasons, including

  • Forced labor,
  • Commercial sex acts, etc. 

It is a growing problem both domestically and internationally, with the majority of victims being women and children. The Department of Justice has dedicated significant resources to combat human trafficking and hold perpetrators accountable.

Immigration Violations (8 U.S.C. § 1321 et al.)

Immigration violations encompass a range of offenses, including illegal entry into the United States, overstaying a visa, and smuggling non-citizens across borders

The Department of Homeland Security, through agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), prioritizes the enforcement of immigration laws. Convictions can lead to deportation, fines, and imprisonment.

Counterfeiting (18 U.S.C. § 471, § 472)

Counterfeiting involves creating or distributing counterfeit money, goods, or documents intended to defraud. This includes forging currency and manufacturing fake designer products. Counterfeiting defrauds consumers and undermines the U.S. economy's and financial systems' integrity.

18 U.S.C. 471 Obligations or securities of United States says, “Whoever, with intent to defraud, falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, or alters any obligation or other security of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

Cybercrime (18 U.S.C. § 1030)

Cybercrime refers to offenses committed using computers or digital networks, including hacking, identity theft, and malware distribution. As the digital landscape evolves, so does the sophistication of cybercriminals, prompting an ongoing and complex battle against cybercrime. 

The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are leading efforts to detect, prevent, and prosecute cybercrimes.

Identity Theft (18 U.S.C. § 1028)

Identity theft involves unlawfully obtaining and using another person's data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain. This can range from credit card fraud to stealing someone's Social Security number to open new accounts. The crime carries serious penalties, including prison time.

For more information, contact our federal criminal defense lawyers at Eisner Gorin LLP, which has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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