Crimes Against the Government

Most crimes target individuals or pieces of property. But certain types of crimes can target the federal government or the country as a whole. Unlike offenses that only violate state laws, these acts violate federal law. 

The federal court system adjudicates these crimes. Sometimes, the state may bring a similar state charge against the accused. Typically, acts against the United States will be prosecuted in federal court. Cases against local government authorities could be handled in either the local state court or federal court, depending on the parties and circumstances.

FindLaw's Crimes Against the Government section explores these various crimes. Since these acts may affect the country's safety and stability, the penalties for a conviction can be severe. Read on to learn more about crimes against the government.

Federal Criminal Jurisdiction

The federal government (through Congress) may pass criminal laws, but only if they relate to a federal or national interest. The term "federal interest" is somewhat vague but includes the following:

  • Violations of immigration, customs, and border protection laws
  • Crimes involving more than one state (including instances where the perpetrator has crossed state lines during or after a crime)
  • Crimes involving federal officers
  • Crimes committed on federal property
  • Acts that threaten national security or risk exposing top-secret information
  • Acts in support of terrorism

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) typically investigates federal offenses. The Attorney General of the United States prosecutes federal crimes. The Attorney General normally delegates individual prosecutions to U.S. attorneys and their assistants. Other federal agencies involved in the enforcement of federal criminal laws include the following:

These entities may conduct federal investigations into alleged crimes. The federal government also maintains its own trial courts, appellate courts, and prisons.

Federal Criminal Cases and Procedure

As you might expect, the government does not take crimes against it lightly. A federal law enforcement agency will arrest someone who commits a criminal act against the federal government.

The Attorney General decides which criminal charges to bring against the defendant. The federal charges may be either a felony or misdemeanor. Defendants have a right to a grand jury. A grand jury decides whether to indict a defendant in felony cases. If they indict the defendant, the case may proceed to trial in U.S. district court (federal court).

Defendants have a right to a fair jury trial. They also have the right to a criminal defense attorney. FindLaw's section on criminal rights provides more information about the right to a criminal lawyer.

At trial, the government must prove their charges beyond a reasonable doubt. If the result is an acquittal, they walk free. If the jurors convict the defendant, the defendant may go to federal prison. For example, suppose the jury finds the defendant guilty of drug trafficking or harming a government official. These crimes carry mandatory prison sentences.

A convicted person may appeal their case. An appellate court hears the first appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court can decide whether to hear a subsequent appeal.

Terrorism Basics

The definition of "terrorism" is not set in stone. Various presidential administrations have altered its meaning, often for political reasons.

The U.S. Code defines terrorism as" premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." It is frequently intended to influence an audience.

The FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government or civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives."

As you can see, these definitions are open to interpretation. Penalties for terrorism range from imprisonment to capital punishment (if a death occurs as a result).

Rioting, Treason, and Other Acts of Rebellion

Rebellion, protest, and acts of civil disobedience are deeply rooted in the very fabric of the United States. After all, the nation was born from a contentious split from the British monarchy.

The challenge in any democracy is to allow avenues for protest and redressing grievances while maintaining order and the rule of law. Several crimes against the government address violations of this delicate balance, including the following:

  • Sedition: Actions or speech intended to incite a rebellion against the government
  • Treason: A crime of betraying one's country, typically through efforts to overthrow the government
  • Rioting: Participating in a violent public disturbance
  • Insurrection: Violent uprising against one's government
  • Sabotage: The intentional destruction or obstruction of something for political advantage

Learn About Crimes Against the Government

A broad range of acts are considered crimes against the government. To read and learn more about specific federal crimes against the government, click on the links below.

  • Rioting and Inciting Riots: Learn where the line is drawn between protest and rioting, how inciting riots is defined under the law, the federal penalties for a conviction, and more
  • Sedition: An overview of the federal crime of sedition, in which two or more people conspire to overthrow the government or oppose the legal authority of the U.S. by force
  • Terrorism and Terroristic Threats: The basics of terrorism, terroristic threats, and how United States law punishes such actions, including an explanation of what constitutes terrorism, related offenses, and sentencing
  • Espionage: Explanation of the federal crime of espionage, which prohibits sharing classified government documents and other sensitive information with unauthorized individuals or organizations
  • Treason: How the United States Codes defines the serious crime of treason, in which a U.S. citizen or legal resident has levied war against the country or given aid to its enemies
  • Flag Burning: Flag burning as a protest was once treated as a serious crime, but the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution now protects it

Get Help With Your Case From an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you, or someone you know, is facing a charge involving actions against the government, it's important to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Since charges against the U.S. government would be tried in federal (U.S. district) court, the attorney should have experience with the federal court system. A criminal defense attorney can advise you of your rights and plan a defense. Crimes against the government are serious. Contact a criminal defense lawyer today for advice.

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