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Is murder a federal crime? 7 ways it can be

Posted by Neil Shouse | Jun 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

murder spelled out
Depending on the circumstance, or individual involved, it can be...

There are seven ways when a murder can be charged as a federal crime. These are when the offense is:

  1. the murder of a federal judge or a federal law enforcement official,
  2. the killing of an immediate family member of a federal law enforcement official,
  3. the murder of an elected or appointed federal official,
  4. a killing committed during a bank robbery,
  5. a killing aboard a ship,
  6. a murder designed to influence a court case, and
  7. a killing committed on federal property.

A defendant can raise a legal defense to try and challenge a federal murder charge. Three common defenses are:

  1. self-defense,
  2. accidental killing, and
  3. coerced confession.

The ultimate determination as to whether a murder charge is brought under state court or federal court is whether the crime violated:

  • a state murder law, or
  • a federal murder law.

What are the 7 ways in which murder can be charged as a federal crime?

A murder can be charged as a federal crime whenever the act breaks a federal law. In particular, 7 scenarios when murder can be charged under federal law are as follows:

  1. the murder is of a federal judge or a federal law enforcement official (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1114) – examples of a federal law enforcement official include an agent of TSA, ATF, or FBI.
  2. the killing is of an immediate family member of a federal law enforcement official (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1115b3) – this particular law protects family members from threats, made against the law enforcement officials, that are designed to force the official to stop an investigation.
  3. the murder is of an elected or appointed federal official (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 351) – examples of officials include the President, Congressmen, and Senators.
  4. a killing that is committed during a bank robbery (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1111) – this law applies for any murders committed during the entire course of a robbery and includes such victims as security guards, staff, and customers in the bank.
  5. a killing that was aboard a ship (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 2280) – this law usually pertains to piracy, or the taking by force, or threat of force, of a ship at sea.
  6. a murder designed to influence a court case (in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 1512) – this includes the killing of such personnel as court officers, jurors, and witnesses.
  7. a killing that takes place on federal property – examples of federal property include national parks and Native American reservations.

Are there any legal defenses to federal murder charges?

A defendant can raise a legal defense to try and challenge a federal murder charge. A successful defense can work to reduce or even dismiss a charge.

Three common defenses are:

  1. self-defense – federal law typically allows people to use proportional force in defense of themselves and others if they reasonably believe they are about to sustain immediate bodily harm. This means self-defense is a valid legal defense to murder charges involving threats to a person's bodily harm.
  2. accidental killing – if a person caused a death on accident, then the accident may serve as a defense if the person that caused the death:

a. had no criminal intent to do harm,

b. was not acting negligently, and

c. was otherwise engaged in lawful activity at the time of the killing.

  1. coerced confession - this defense applies to the situation where a defendant was charged with murder following a confession. If a party can show that the police coerced him into a confession, then the judge may exclude certain evidence or drop the actual charge of murder.

What determines whether a murder charge is filed at the state level or the federal level?

The ultimate determination as to whether a murder charge is brought under state court or federal court is whether the crime violated:

  • a state murder law, or
  • a federal murder law.

Many murder charges are prosecuted at the state level because the allegations within the charge violate state law. However, there are situations when the allegations within a charge violate a federal law. In these situations, a murder charge becomes a federal charge – as opposed to a state charge. Please keep in mind that some murders may violate both state and federal laws – which means the same act can be prosecuted in either federal court or state court, or both.

Is it double jeopardy to charge someone in state court and federal court?

It is not double jeopardy to charge a person in state and federal court for murder, provided that his actions violated both state and federal laws.

The Double Jeopardy Clause, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, says that a person cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offense. But jeopardy only attaches, or applies, to prosecutions of the same criminal acts by the same sovereign, or governments.

States are considered "separate sovereigns" from the federal government in the United States. And, according to the dual sovereignty doctrine, more than one sovereign (e.g., a state government and a federal government) may prosecute a person without violating double jeopardy, if he breaks the laws of each sovereignty.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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