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Which 3 Crimes Are in the U.S. Constitution?

The Fourth of July commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but it also provides a timely reason to learn some trivia about America's other foundational legal document, the Constitution.

Although not our first governing document (see the Articles of Confederation), the Constitution set up our three branches of government, the balance of powers, and the doctrine of federalism which governs the relationship between the states and the federal government.

The Constitution contains all of these legal principles, but it only mentions three criminal offenses. Which ones?

1. Treason.

It isn't a surprise that treason is defined in the Constitution, as the Founders likely wanted to know how our fledgling nation would deal with enemies within its borders.

Article III Section 3 defines treason as:

  • Levying war against the United States,
  • Adhering to the nation's enemies, or
  • Giving our nation's enemies aid and comfort.

The federal statute defining treason is almost a mirror image of this definition, and it is one of the few crimes for which a defendant may "suffer death."

2. Piracy.

While the Founders weren't prescient enough to anticipate Napster, Congress is empowered under Article I Section 8 of the Constitution to "define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas."

Congress did create a law to punish piracy. So anyone caught robbing American mariners on the high seas in Johnny Depp eyeliner can potentially face life in prison.

3. Counterfeiting.

Article I Section 8 of the Constitution also endows Congress with the ability to punish those who counterfeit "the Securities and current Coin of the United States."

The Secret Service, along with protecting U.S. heads of state, is also charged with protecting the integrity of the nation's currency by investigating and arresting counterfeiters.

Counterfeiting of U.S. currency today is almost always in paper bills, but it is no less illegal.

What About Murder or Robbery?

The Constitution only contains direct references to the three crimes mentioned above, but it leaves the vast array of violent and theft crimes unmentioned.

There are federal laws against murder and robbery of course, and these laws have been justified under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, as well as the Commerce Clause.

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