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Posted on May 15, 2017 in Crime

What Are the Penalties for Committing a Federal Crime?

Determining Jurisdiction

In order for the government to regulate the behavior of its citizens, it must have “jurisdiction.” In most cases, determining jurisdiction is straightforward. For example, if someone commits a crime within a state’s boundaries, it’s the state’s jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute. On the other hand, if a crime occurs on a federal property – such as a national park – it becomes federal jurisdiction. A crime might also have federal jurisdiction if it occurs across state lines. In some cases, crimes violate both state and federal law, allowing both branches of government to bring charges.

Double Jeopardy

If you’ve heard of the term “double jeopardy,” you might assume it means that you can’t be charged for the same crime twice. This isn’t always the case. Under the legal rule of “dual sovereignty,” a federal government and the state may pursue charges at the same time. While one government may defer to the other, they’re legally allowed to pursue separate charges, especially if one prosecutor fails.

A famous example of this is the arrest of NFL player Michael Vick. He was convicted and sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for operating a dogfighting ring, and the state of Virginia decided to pursue separate charges, to which he pled guilty.

Examples of Federal Crimes and Their Punishments

Just about any crime can be considered federal, especially if they involve interstate commerce. Here is a sampling of federal crimes, as well as their maximum punishments under U.S. law:

Antitrust Violations

This “white collar” crime occurs when a person or business stifles competition or encourages unfair business practices. Examples include price-fixing or predatory pricing. These violations may only have minor fines, but carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and $1million in fines.

Common Federal Crimes

So-called “common federal crimes” involve activities that violate the Interstate Commerce Clause. Examples include violations against the military, post office, and crimes against the IRS. Tax evasion, fraudulently receiving welfare benefits, sending a ransom note by mail, and mailing illegal drugs are all common examples. The punishments will vary widely depending on the severity of the offense and prior criminal history. These may include small fines to long periods of jail time.

Money Laundering

Money laundering is the colloquial term for engaging in financial transactions that conceal their source and destination; since it’s often illegally procured and comes from the “underground” economy. The point of money laundering is to make criminal funds appear legitimate. Under the U.S. Federal Code, money laundering is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved, whichever is greater.

Kickbacks

“Kickbacks” refer to an act of quid-pro-quo, in which a party agrees to “kick back” some of the proceeds of a contract. These may also be referred to as “under the table” payments. Federal rules generally involve public works that also receive financing from the U.S. government. In recent years, health care kickbacks (such as pharmaceutical companies offering kickbacks to physicians) have gained more federal attention. This is a serious crime – both those who offer and those who accept kickbacks may face $5000 in fines and 5 years in prison.

Drug Violations

In some cases, drug offenses can be elevated to federal crimes. This especially applies when drug shipments are transported against state lines. Drug trafficking crimes vary widely. Generally speaking, the more of a drug you have, and the more dangerous it is, the more likely you are to face a long prison sentence. In some instances, these sentences may be as long as 40 years.

More Resources

Federal jurisdiction may apply in a wide range of scenarios. If you’re unsure of a crime’s jurisdiction, talk to a criminal defense attorney.