murder becomes a federal crime
In certain circumstances, murder becomes a federal crime.

Under the Constitution, criminal law is mostly handled by individual states. If you are accused of murder committed in California, you will most likely be charged and tried under California’s laws. However, there are many circumstances in which killing someone can also break a federal law. In those instances, you can be tried in federal court.

These cases usually involve killings that are related to the following:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Crossing state borders
  • Occur on a body of water
  • Are considered an attack on the U.S. government or judicial system

Here are 10 such circumstances in which a killing could be charged as a federal crime:

1. Murder of an Elected/Appointed Federal Official (18 U.S.C. Section 351, 1751)

If the victim is a Congressman, a Senator, the President, Vice President, a Cabinet officer (such as the Secretary of State), or a Supreme Court Justice, or if their death was the result of a kidnapping, the crime would fall under federal jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. Section 351 and 18 U.S.C. Section 1751.1

2. Murder of a Federal Judge or Law Enforcement Official (18 U.S.C. Section 1114)

Similar to the above, it is also a federal crime to kill a judge appointed to the federal courts or to murder a federal law enforcement official, such as an agent of the FBI or DEA.

3. Killing of an Immediate Family Member of Law Enforcement Officials (18 U.S.C. Section 115(b)(3))

Not only does federal law protect law enforcement officials, but it also protects their family members from threats or retaliation intended to influence the law enforcement official into dropping their investigation.

4. A Killing Designed to Influence the Outcome of a Court Case (18 U.S.C. Section 1512)

Federal law also prohibits murders of court officers and jurors, or killings that are intended to prevent testimony from a witness, police informant, or a victim. In addition, it is also a federal crime to commit murder in retaliation for testimony given at a trial.

5. A Killing Committed During Bank Robbery (18 U.S.C. Section 1111)

Generally, the felony murder rule applies to any killings committed during the course of a felony, such as kidnapping or arson. Bank robbery itself is a federal crime as well as a felony. A murder committed during the course of a bank robbery can result in federal charges.

This includes the killing of any staff, security guards, or customers in the bank, any murders of hostages, or any killings made during the attempt to escape law enforcement.

6. Murder Related to Rape, Child Molestation, and Sexual Exploitation of Children (18 U.S.C. Section 2248, 2251)

murder during a sex crime
Murder during a sex crime such as kidnapping is a federal crime.

A federal murder charge can occur when the underlying felony that led to the victim’s death is rape, or if the murder occurs in the course of the commission of a sexual crime against a child.2

The logic behind the federal law is slightly different in the case of sexual exploitation of minors. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce.3 The Supreme Court has held this to mean that Congress can control the paths of commerce (such as roads, shipping lanes, and railways) as well as what travels on those paths.4

If the murder is related to the transportation or transmission of illegal contraband such as child pornography, it can be charged as a federal crime.

7. Murder Aboard a Ship (18 U.S.C. Section 2280)

The official name of this type of crime is “an offense against maritime navigation.” Usually, this refers to piracy, which is the taking by force or threat of force of a ship at sea. If a murder occurs during a crime that threatens the safe travel of a ship either in U.S. waters, or if the victim is a U.S. national regardless of where the ship is when the murder takes place, the homicide can be charged under federal law.

8. Drug-Related Murders (18 U.S.C. Section 36, 924(i))

Violence related to drug trafficking is a serious problem in the U.S. Some estimates place the number of deaths in the “War on Drugs” between 2006 and 2010 higher than the number of soldiers killed in the Iraq War.5 It is no surprise then that the U.S. government’s policy is to punish drug-related murders under strict federal laws.6

9. Murder for Hire (18 U.S.C. Section 1958)

Why is murder-for-hire potentially a federal crime? Congress has legal jurisdiction over interstate commerce. Interstate commerce includes not only the paths that people can travel between states, but also the use of communication pathways such as the postal service, telephone lines, cellular towers, and other electronic communication.

If the killing can only be accomplished by causing a person to travel over state lines (including the victim), or by communicating the request by phone, mail, or the Internet, the murder-for-hire could be a federal crime.

10. Murder by Mail (18 U.S.C. Section 1716)

For the same reason as murder for hire, the use of the postal service to send lethal items (such as explosives, poisons, biological hazards, or even dangerous animals) intended to kill the recipient is also a federal crime.7

Theodore Kaczynski, known also as the “Unabomber,” was convicted in 1998 under this law for sending bombs through the mail that killed three people and injured 23 others.8

Contact the Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich to Begin Your Defense

murder attorney
A murder attorney can help you fight for your freedom.

If you or someone you care about has been accused of murder, contact one of our experienced defense attorneys as soon as possible. At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have been successfully defending people accused of murder at the federal and state levels for over 30 years. We are committed to giving you the best defense possible. Our attorneys are available to answer any of your questions.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, there is a Wallin & Klarich attorney experienced in federal criminal defense near you no matter where you work or live.

Call us today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will be there when you call.


1. [See 18 U.S.C. 351 and 18 U.S.C. 1751.]
2. [See 18 U.S.C. 1111, 18 U.S.C. 2245, and 18 U.S.C. 2251]
3. [U.S. Const., Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 3.]
4. [United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995).]
5. [http://narcosphere.narconews.com/notebook/bill-conroy/2012/03/drug-war-related-homicides-us-average-least-1100-year]
6. [See, e.g., 18 U.S.C. 36 and 18 U.S.C. 924(i).]
7. [http://writ.news.findlaw.com/hilden/20031015.html]
8. [http://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/ted-kaczynski-the-unabomber]

Your Answer

Author: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney.Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

  • Tlbrooks

    What about murder on federal lands or murder on an Indian reservation?

    • Paul J. Wallin

      Yes, the act of murder on federal lands or on an Indian reservation generally are charged as federal crimes, but that is not always the case.

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