Many people believe that crossing state lines is what determines whether conduct can result in federal criminal charges. However, the issue of federal jurisdiction is more complicated than that. Activity that occurs in one state can be subject to federal prosecution.
Understanding federal criminal jurisdiction requires a look back at history.
The United States is a dual sovereignty system in that two governments have authority over the people, the federal government and state governments. Powers are divided among these two bodies. For example, printing money is a power that belongs exclusively to the federal government. The authority to makes laws addressing crime and punishment is generally reserved for the states.
But the federal government has the ability to make laws establishing federal crimes and their penalties, as well.
The question of which government has authority to prosecute criminal activity depends on the subject matter.
The federal government can make criminal laws only when doing so is consistent with the powers delegated to Congress by the Constitution. As mandated by the Constitution, the federal government consists of three branches with separate but equal powers, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
Congress derives its powers from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. That provision of the Constitution allows Congress to make laws concerning the mail, taxes, and commerce. These powers are referred to as the Commerce Clause, Tax and Spending Clause, etc.
Every federal criminal law must be based in one of the areas delegated to Congress by the Constitution.
Congress has power over taxation and therefore, has authority to make criminal offenses related to taxes. Tax evasion is a federal offense under 26 USC 7201 with a possible sentence of 5 years in prison and $100,000 fine.
The Congressional power that is used most often to make federal criminal laws is the authority to regulate commerce. The Commerce Clause is what makes crossing state lines become a federal offense.
Congress can make laws concerning almost any subject matter using the commerce clause because the US Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to mean that the commerce power allows Congress to
“regulate those activities having a substantial relation to interstate commerce, i.e., those activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.” See US v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, (1995)
The commerce power is very broad.
The commerce power is the basis for nearly all federal criminal laws including white collar crime, firearms offenses, drug trafficking, sex offenses, etc. The fact that the offense took place almost entirely within one state does not remove it from commerce as long as there is a substantial relation to commerce.
The Lopez decision, 514 U.S. 549, is the only restriction on the commerce clause. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the Gun-Free School Zone Act, which penalized possession of a firearm on school premises, exceeded the authority of Congress and therefore was unconstitutional. The justices said that there was no relation between possessing a gun on school grounds and interstate commerce.
Some statutes require a relationship to commerce explicitly. For instance, the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which addresses organized crime, requires an “enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce.” 18 USC 1962. The penalty for RICO violation is a possible 20 year sentence in federal prison. See 18 USC 1963(a).
The practical application of the commerce element in prosecutions is that the federal government must prove that the activity involved commerce beyond a reasonable doubt.
Although it is a generalization, a crime becomes a federal offense when it crosses state lines.
For example, in a prosecution for possession of a firearm by a person with a domestic violence conviction under 18 USC 922(g), the US Attorney would have to prove that the gun was involved in commerce because it traveled from one state to another. The sentence for this offense is a possible 10 years in prison.
Distribution or possession with intent to distribute 1 kilogram of heroin or 5 kilograms of cocaine is an offense with a mandatory sentence of 10 years to life in federal prison under 21 USC 841. Congress has declared that drug trafficking affects interstate commerce under 21 USC 801.