State governments pass laws that define and penalize criminal activities under state law. In the same way, Congress also defines and punishes criminal activity that offends federal law. The differences between state and federal crimes are sometimes complicated because the criminal laws may overlap. But generally, if a crime occurs in one state, it is considered a state crime if it violates the state laws. But if it occurs across multiple states, crosses state lines, or involves federal property, then it is considered a federal crime.

State crimes

In simple words, state crimes involve any criminal activity that violates the laws of the state, local government, town, city, or municipal government. Such crimes include traffic violations, vandalism, sexual assault, murder, and other conduct defined by the state laws. 

Most crimes in the United States are state crimes handled and tried by the state courts. In all the cases filed annually in the United States, approximately 30million reside in the state courts while only a million are in federal courts. They involve crimes that happen too often, such as arson, robbery, theft, burglary, rape, and other conduct stipulated by the state laws.

Federal crimes

On the other hand, federal crimes involve the violations of specific itemized federal statutes such as IRS violations, immigration matters, drug trafficking, mail fraud, counterfeiting allegations, destruction of federal property, kidnapping, etc. 

In other words, federal laws address matters of national concern as stipulated by the US constitution and the federal laws passed by Congress. Some crimes such as bank robbery and kidnapping fall under state and federal jurisdictions and may be prosecuted by either authority. Generally, there are fewer federal crimes than state laws. While state lawmakers can pass more criminal laws, the federal jurisdiction is limited to where the federal or national interest is at stake. For instance, counterfeiting the US currency is a matter of national concern because it is the federal government that prints money.

The federal government has jurisdiction over multiple crimes, including:

  • Any crime that occurs on federal property.
  • An offense involving fraud or misinterpretation of the federal government or its agencies.
  • A crime where the defendant or criminal conduct crosses state lines, such as internet fraud involving perpetrators from various states.
  • Customs and immigration violations such as international human trafficking and child pornography.

The federal criminal code covers many crimes usually addressed at the state level, including non-violent and violent crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, and assault. All crimes committed on federal property, including Indian reservations, federal buildings, national parks, and courthouses, are considered federal crimes. 

They may also include transporting illegal drugs across states or into the US, drug trafficking, identity theft, hacking a federally owned system, and using the US postal system to defraud people. Most federal crimes that cross from state to federal courts involve tax evasion, drugs, firearms, mail, and wire fraud.


On a federal level, the criminal laws are defined by the US constitution or passed by Congress. In contrast, criminal laws are defined by the state constitution or the state’s governing bodies on a state level.