Federal Criminal Charges for State Law Violations Under the Assimilative Crimes Act

Photo of Cape Hatteras & Lighthouse - Assimilative Crimes Act

The United States government owns a number of wildlife refuges, parks, memorials, and military bases in northeastern North Carolina. If you commit a crime on any of this federally-owned property, a federal law called the Assimilative Crimes Act authorizes federal law enforcement to charge you with a state criminal offense in federal court for your conduct.

If you visit federally-owned property anywhere in the U.S., you should understand how the Act works and know what you should do if you are facing a federal charge under state law for conduct on federal land. Facing any federal criminal charge is a very serious matter.

How Does the Assimilative Crimes Act Work?

The Assimilative Crimes Act is a federal law enacted by the United States Congress. Under the Act, if a criminal offense under state law is committed on federal land, and there is no chargeable federal criminal offense, federal law enforcement and federal prosecutors are authorized charge offenders in federal court for a state law violation. There are two required elements for the Act to apply:

  • Conduct occurs on federal property that constitutes a crime under state law; and
  • The conduct does not constitute a crime under federal law.

When those elements are met, the Act incorporates the state law by reference, and federal prosecutors can file the charge in federal court. In other words, under the Act, state law applies to conduct on federal property when that conduct is not addressed in federal criminal statutes.

Throughout the country, one of the most commonly-charged offenses under the Act is DWI/DUI (Driving While Impaired or Driving Under the Influence). Because there is no federal DWI/DUI statute, individuals who drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs on federal property are charged under the law of the state where the federal land is located. (An exception in the case of National Park Service property is discussed below.)

When an offense is charged under the Act, the charge is filed by the office of United States Attorney for the federal district where the offense occurs. It is prosecuted in United States District Court, but the provisions of the applicable state law govern the nature of the offense and the penalties.

For a federal criminal charge filed under the Act, only the nature of the offense and penalties are based on state law. The entire process is very different from facing a state criminal charge. The federal court system is completely separate from individual state court systems. The courts, judges, rules, and processes are all different in federal court.

In addition to DWI, there are many other state offenses that can be charged in federal court under the Act, including serious crimes such as murder and burglary. In northeastern North Carolina, commonly-charged offenses include fishing and hunting violations and violations relating to operating vehicles on beaches.

Charges that can brought under the Assimilative Crimes Act do not include state regulatory laws or administrative penalties. Only criminal offenses contained in state statutes qualify.

Facing Federal Charges in Northeastern North Carolina — Including DWI

Northeastern North Carolina is home to a number of military bases and federal recreational and wildlife areas, including:

  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  • Wright Brothers National Memorial
  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
  • Fort Raleigh National Historical Site
  • Alligator river National Wildlife Refuge
  • Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
  • Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge

For all federal land in North Carolina, the state’s criminal statutes apply to conduct of visitors to these sites. That includes the North Carolina DWI law. However, for property operated by the National Park Service — which includes Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Wright Brothers Memorial, and Fort Raleigh — there is a National Park Service DUI regulation that will apply. The charge will be filed in federal court, regardless of whether it is charged under the state law or federal regulation.

Whether DWI/DUI is charged under North Carolina’s DWI law or under the federal DUI regulation will depend on whether the property is operated by the National Park Service. A federal DUI charge is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a fine of up to $5,000, and probation for up to five years. For North Carolina state DWI penalties, you may refer to our article, Understanding North Carolina DWI Laws and Penalties.

If you are charged with any offense in federal court under the Assimilative Crimes Act, it is essential to have an attorney represent you who knows both state and federal laws and who can practice in both state and federal courts. Cases prosecuted under the Act can present unique issues relating to the provisions of the Act itself, in addition to the issues that exist under the state law provisions applicable to the charge.

Talk With Our Federal Criminal Defense Attorneys

Our federal criminal defense attorneys at The Twiford Law Firm have substantial experience representing individuals facing federal charges brought under the Assimilative Crimes Act in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, as well as defending against federal charges based on federal laws and regulations, including the National Park Service DUI regulation.

With offices in Elizabeth City and Moyock, we serve clients throughout northeastern North Carolina. Contact us today at 252-338-4151 or 252-435-2811 to schedule an initial consultation.

Categories: Criminal Defense

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