Federal prosecutions are on the rise in Utah. What crimes are the feds pursuing most?
The number of crimes prosecuted by the federal government in Utah hit a 12-year high in 2022
The number of crimes prosecuted by the federal government in Utah hit a 12-year high in 2022 as the state saw an increase in people being sentenced for drug trafficking and firearm offenses.
That’s according to data from the United States Sentencing Commission that shows the federal government handed down 741 sentences in Utah during the 2022 fiscal year, the most since 2011 and only the second time since then that the number surpassed 700.
In Utah, the most common federally prosecuted crime is often drug trafficking — that includes manufacturing, dispensing or distributing a controlled substance. Of the 741 sentences in Utah during the 2022 fiscal year, 244 were for drug trafficking, 196 for firearm-related crimes, 95 for immigration and 32 for fraud, theft or embezzlement.
Other crimes like robbery, money laundering, sexual abuse or child pornography make up a combined 12% of the federal sentences in Utah.
Nationally, drug trafficking was also the most prosecuted federal crime in 2022, followed by immigration and firearm offenses.
The number of federal prosecutions in Utah peaked in 2011 when a surge of immigration and fraud-related crimes resulted in 1,086 sentences. That’s the most since 2000, and the only time in the last 23 years federal prosecutors sentenced more than 1,000 people in the Beehive State.
More recently, the rate has stayed below 700 federal sentences, the exceptions being in 2017 when the state again saw an increase in immigration-related crimes, and 2022.
The majority of crimes and sentences in Utah are carried out at the local level, by state prosecutors following state code. However, if there is some kind of federal interest at stake, crimes can be prosecuted at the federal level.
“If I go to the 7-Eleven gas station and I robbed the place, that’s called robbery under state law,” said Greg Skordas, a KSL legal analyst and public defender. “But if I robbed the federally insured credit union across the street, that’s a federal crime because it’s a federally insured institution.”
That includes incidents that take place on federal land or involve federal law enforcement, like crimes committed on a Native American reservation, or Forest Service land; fraud that involves the federal government, like tax, medicaid or Small Business Administration loan fraud; crimes where the perpetrator or the crime crosses state lines, ranging from kidnapping to fraud that targets victims around the country; and immigration or customs violations.
Crimes involving the internet, like child pornography, are often prosecuted at the federal level as well.
“Using the internet for those crimes, of course, involves interstate commerce,” Skordas said.
Whether a drug crime is prosecuted at the state or federal level can sometimes depend on where the drugs came from.
“A pound of marijuana is often a state crime, but a pound of meth, if you could show that it was produced in one state and driven over the state line, is a federal crime,” said Skordas.
Utah does see a disproportionate amount of methamphetamine in its federal drug cases, according to government data — about 66% of Utah’s drug-related crimes in 2022 involved meth, compared to 48% of all federal cases.
Firearm-related offenses typically rank high in Utah, and the country, for the most common federal crimes. Since 2018, Utah has averaged about 150 sentences each year. Those crimes are defined as someone illegally possessing or using a firearm.
“The feds love gun crimes,” said Skordas. “Firearms are easy because they don’t make firearms in Utah, except for Browning Arms. You can’t buy a firearm that didn’t travel via interstate commerce.”
Immigration offenses, which ranked third for Utah in 2022, are often at the top of the list nationally and includes crimes related to illegally entering the U.S., or according to the law firm Criminal Defense, “committing a felony offense as an immigrant.”
“Those are almost exclusively tried to federal court,” Skordas said.
States along the border tend to see high rates of immigration crimes. In 2022, federal prosecutors pursued 9,832 sentences for immigration, and 3,391 in Arizona.