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What Kind of Crime Constitutes a Federal Offense?

Two main factors determine whether a crime will be classified as a state or federal offense: jurisdiction and severity.

The government must have jurisdiction to regulate a behavior. A state has jurisdiction over a certain crime if the crime happened within that state’s borders and is a violation of the state’s laws. A crime that occurs on federal property, such as a national park or across the borders of multiple states, gives the federal government jurisdiction to step in and take over prosecution of the case, as does any crime that violates federal law.

Some crimes violate both federal and state laws, allowing for both governments to bring criminal charges against the offender.

The concept of “dual sovereignty”

The “double jeopardy” clause in the Constitution protects offenders from being tried twice for the same crime by the same sovereign entity. State and federal governments are different sovereign entities. If a crime is classified as both a state and a federal offense, state and federal law enforcement have “dual sovereignty,” meaning that each can prosecute the same offender for the same crime.

For example, car theft and drug possession are punishable under state law. However, the Constitution provides the federal government the authority to regulate all interstate commerce. Thus, if someone transports drugs or a stolen vehicle across state lines, the crimes become punishable under federal law. In this case, the offender would stand trial twice, once for state offenses and once for federal offenses.

Even if the initial crime occurred only in the state of Georgia, it may still be federal offense — and both the state and the federal government could prosecute the offender.

Governments may defer to each other

In other instances, the entity with jurisdiction will defer to the other, with the deferring entity only stepping in to prosecute if the first prosecution fails. Alternatively, state and federal law enforcement could work together to divide up the charges involved in a case, with the state of Gerogia taking some and the federal government taking others.

To learn more about how crimes are classified as either state or federal, and the various penalties you might face in either situation, contact a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney at the Georgia law office of James D. Michael, P.C.