My understanding is that most crimes that don't involve the US as a party, maritime law, special cases, etc, are handled by state courts, where the rules differ from state to state. But in certain circumstances these ordinary crimes can become federal cases. Yet the Constitution says nothing about crimes committed by citizens. So when were these rules established?

I'm looking at murder as a particular case of interest. If murder isn't forbidden by the Constitution, when were federal laws first established on how to handle it?

  • Congress can pass laws about things that aren't mentioned in the constitution; murder is one of those things, as are most crimes. Federal crimes generally have to have a federal angle of some sort, such as interstate commerce, or a victim who is a federal officer or employee. I do not know when federal law first criminalized murder, nor the specific federal context of the crime.
    – phoog
    Feb 4, 2017 at 5:47
  • Do you mean for example, when was it first a crime to murder commit murder out of the jurisdiction of a specific state?
    – user6726
    Feb 4, 2017 at 5:54
  • Yes, exactly. @phoog I understand that, but given that context, historically when were federal murder laws first established? Feb 4, 2017 at 6:10
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    I was confused because of the phrase "involve the US as a party." The only parties to a criminal action are the prosecuting state and the defendant, so it's hard to see how a state crime could ever end up in federal court except on appeal.
    – phoog
    Feb 4, 2017 at 15:37

1 Answer 1


On April 30, 1790 (during the 1st Congress) a statute was passed (An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States, pp. 112-113 of the entire acts), the third section of which reads

...And be it [further]enacted, That if any person or persons shall, within any fort, arsenal, dock-yard, magazine, or in any other place or district of country, under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, commit the crime of wilful murder, such person or persons on being thereof convicted shall suffer death

(and then there are numerous other sections criminalizing murder in federal jurisdiction).

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    How did you find this? I'm still learning how to research law. Feb 4, 2017 at 6:34
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    A lot of research is just knowing where to look, and you often get that by not knowing where to look, but doing it anyway.
    – user4657
    Feb 4, 2017 at 7:13
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    Look up "US Code" on Wiki (which contains the current law), learn about earlier Revised Statutes, fail to find a useful copy online, try Statutes at Large; luck out and find a complete collection. Google is magical.
    – user6726
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:10
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    @Aerovistae It helps, in the case of this question, to know that the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789 and that Congress passed skeletal laws on almost every subject in that first session of Congress. Also, it isn't obvious that the national government under the Articles of Confederation that were in place from 1776 to 1789 gave the national government the power to enact laws of this type.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 4, 2017 at 16:29

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