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Types of Criminal Offenses Under U.S. Law

Cheryl Regan

From petty theft to violent offenses, crime can take various forms and have varying consequences for the individuals and communities involved. Generally, criminal acts are divided into five main categories: crimes against a person, crimes against property, inchoate crimes, statutory crimes, and financial or “white-collar” crimes.

The severity of the crime and the resulting damage will determine how each offense is graded—i.e., whether it is classed as an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common types of crimes within each category—including their characteristics—and answer some frequently asked questions about their diversity. Bear in mind that each of these crimes may be called by various names and even defined differently depending on which state you are in.

Crimes Against Persons

Crimes against persons involve actions that cause physical or mental harm or anguish to another individual, with homicide being the most severe form of such crimes. Homicide is further divided into murder and manslaughter based on intent and circumstances. If the offense does not result in death but still involves violence, it falls under the category of assaultive crimes.

Crimes against persons include:

Murder

Murder involves the intentional killing of another person without legal justification. In states where the Felony Murder rule applies, a person can be charged with Murder if they accidentally or unintentionally cause the death of another person during the commission or attempted commission of a separate felony.

Rape

Rape is defined as unlawful intercourse with another person without their consent, through use of fear, force, or coercion. It is a very serious crime that comes with severe consequences.  

Assault

Assault and Battery refer to violent crimes that involve threatening harm or causing actual bodily harm to another person. Battery does not require the victim to suffer severe injury or trauma—any touching that is meant to cause harm or offense may be considered battery. For example, spitting on someone could result in battery charges.

A defendant may face aggravated assault charges where the offense is carried out against a vulnerable person, such as an elderly, disabled, or pregnant individual, where a dangerous weapon is used, or where the victim suffers serious bodily injury. 

Kidnapping

Kidnapping can mean taking a person to another location against their will or restricting a person’s movement to a confined space against their will. For example, if a person is prevented from leaving their home, this could be considered kidnapping. 

Manslaughter

Not all homicides are classified as murder. Homicides that occur unintentionally, without malice aforethought, or in circumstances that do not amount to murder are classified as manslaughter. Examples of manslaughter include:

  • Distracted driving that leads to a fatal accident
  • Providing a minor with alcohol or drugs that lead to the minor’s death, for example, through a lethal overdose or drunk driving.
  • Improperly prescribing medication or practicing medicine without a license
  • Getting into an argument and striking someone out of anger. Without premeditation, a killing that’s committed in “the heat of passion” may be classified as voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

Robbery

Robbery is the act of committing theft that’s accompanied by violence or the threat of violence against a person. As with assault, various aspects, such as the use of a deadly weapon or causing serious bodily injury, can aggravate the charges.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a category of crimes that happen between members of a family or those in an intimate relationship, including a dating couple, married couple, or a parent and child. It can refer to a victim being subjected to physical harm, or controlling, coercive, or threatening behavior.

Stalking

Stalking is a pattern of behaviors including following a person without their consent, going to their home or place of work, and/or harassment to the point of causing fear or mental distress. Stalking can involve assault, including making verbal threats of harm, and it can also include noncriminal acts that—when viewed together in context—demonstrate criminal intent.

Crimes Against Property

Crimes against property are offenses that result in the unlawful and intentional damage, destruction, or theft of another individual’s property. Some of the most common crimes against property include theft-related offenses such as robbery, burglary, and carjacking, while others include acts of vandalism and arson. Additionally, damaging property during the commission of another crime, such as Driving While Intoxicated, can result in charges for property damage or vandalism.

Theft, Robbery, and Burglary

Whether stealing something from a store, another person’s personal belongings, such as their wallet or phone, or unlawfully entering a building to steal, these offenses are all considered crimes against property.

Arson

Deliberately setting fire to someone else’s property is a crime against property. Aside from significant damage, it can also place lives at risk, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences and severe legal charges.

Vandalism

Damaging, destroying, or defacing someone else’s property without their permission is a crime against property. These offenses include breaking windows and leaving graffiti on buildings.

Carjacking

Carjacking is the act of taking someone else’s vehicle by force or through threats and intimidation. The act of stealing the vehicle is a crime against property, though the violence and intimidation aspect of the offense are considered crimes against persons.

Economic Crimes

Also known as “financial crimes,” economic crimes are offenses that involve financial gain through the manipulation or illegal exploitation of financial and economic systems. Although these types of crimes take many forms, ranging from investment scams and money laundering to insider trading, some of the most common financial crimes include credit card fraud and identity theft.

Financial crimes include:

Fraud

Identity theft, insurance fraud, and credit card fraud are all types of offenses that involve intentionally deceiving another person with the intention of gaining something of value, such as money or property.

Embezzlement

Whether stealing from an employer or siphoning money from a company or organization’s account, embezzlement is the theft or misappropriation of funds by a person who has been entrusted with them.

Cybercrime

Cybercrimes are offenses carried out digitally or over the Internet. They often involve hacking into systems to steal sensitive information, which can then be used for financial gain. These crimes disrupt operations, leading to significant financial loss for the organizations affected.

Money Laundering

Money laundering is an economic crime that involves a series of complex transactions intended to disguise the origins of money obtained through illegal operations and activities. It is a separate crime from the illegal activity itself, which led to the profits.

Bribery

It is an offense to offer or accept anything of benefit, including money or other valuable property, in exchange for the recipient’s influence, decision, vote, or other official action, including for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business.

Other economic crimes include:

  • Insider Trading
  • Tax Evasion
  • Corruption
  • Counterfeiting

Crimes Against Public Safety

Offenses that threaten the well-being, health, safety, or security of the public are considered crimes against public safety. These crimes include acts of terrorism, as well as environmental crimes.

Terrorism

Terrorism includes acts of violence or intimidation by any group or individual that are intended to instill fear (terror) into the population or force the government into action.

Environmental Crimes

Environmental crimes are actions that violate laws and regulations designed to protect the environment. If a company, organization, or individual releases pollutants or harmful substances into the air, water, or soil that can harm ecosystems and pose a danger to human health, then the offense would be considered a crime against public safety.

Poaching, illegal logging, and illegal dumping of hazardous waste are more examples of environmental crimes.

Weapons Offenses

Weapons offenses, including the illegal or unauthorized possession, use, or distribution of firearms and other dangerous weapons, are considered crimes against public safety. These offenses can range from armed robbery to the possession of an illegal weapon—such as a sawed-off shotgun.

Arson

Deliberately setting fire to another person’s property, including their home, business, or vehicle, is a crime against property. However, arson can also endanger the lives and safety of people in the vicinity, making it a crime against public safety.

Other examples of crimes against public safety include:

  • Public Disorder Crimes
  • Human Trafficking
  • Cyberterrorism
  • Biological or Chemical Threats

Crimes Against Morality and Social Norms

Actions considered unacceptable or harmful to society’s shared values, beliefs, and customs are known as crimes against morality and social norms. These offenses often involve a violation of our collective ethical standards. They include offenses such as prostitution, adultery, public indecency, and illegal drug use.

Crimes linked to the violation of moral and social norms:

Prostitution

In most states, it is a crime to engage in sexual activity in return for money. Some states, like Texas, also criminalize the act of soliciting prostitution. Other related punishments include arranging for prostitution and operating a house of prostitution or brothel. These laws intend to reduce the likelihood of exploitation, human trafficking, and risks to public health.

Obscenity Offenses

Although obscenity laws vary across jurisdictions, they generally aim to protect the public and society as a whole from harmful and offensive content. These crimes can include producing or distributing offensive or sexually explicit materials, including pornography and other materials that are viewed as morally objectionable.

Incest

Sexual relations between close blood relatives, including brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, and aunts or uncles with nephews or nieces, is illegal across the United States—even if the relationship is consensual.


Aside from the potential for genetic abnormalities in any offspring resulting from the relationship, incestuous relationships can cause emotional trauma and create legal complications when it comes to inheritance rights.

Bigamy/Polygamy

In the United States, being married to more than one person at a time is illegal. These relationships can lead to unfair treatment of spouses, inheritance issues, and child custody battles. Polygamy is a violation of social norms as it goes against the idea of marriage being a union between two people.

Other crimes against morality and social norms include:

  • Adultery
  • Public Indecency
  • Homosexuality Criminalization

Cybercrimes

Crimes that are committed using the internet and electronic devices are known as cybercrimes. Cybercrimes can take many different forms, from hacking into computer systems and networks to stealing sensitive information, spreading malware, engaging in online fraud, and conducting email and SMS phishing scams. Cybercrime can impact individuals, but it can also have wide-reaching consequences for organizations and society as a whole, including financial loss, data breaches, reputational damage through propaganda and misinformation, and even posing a threat to national security.

Crimes committed in cyberspace include:

Hacking

Hacking is probably the most obvious cybercrime. It involves gaining unauthorized access to a computer system or network with the intention of stealing data or sabotaging an organization or individual’s operations.

Phishing

Phishing scams are among the most prevalent cybercrimes in today’s society. They involve impersonating a trusted entity, such as a bank, an insurance company, or a branded online store, with the aim of directing an unsuspecting victim to a fake website where their personal information, such as their bank details, can be stolen.

Other cybercrimes include:

  • Cyber Fraud
  • Cyber Espionage
  • Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attacks
  • Use or Distribution of Malware
  • Online Harassment
  • Child Exploitation
  • Cyber Terrorism

Crimes Against the State

Crimes against the state include espionage, sedition, and other acts that threaten the security, stability, or sovereignty of the nation. They include acts of violence, treason,  sabotage, and other actions carried out to undermine or weaken the government or the country.

As these crimes threaten national security and stability, they are often met with extremely harsh consequences.

Crimes against the state include:

Sedition

It is illegal to incite rebellion against the authorities and government. Advocating for violence against the state and spreading seditious propaganda are crimes that seek to undermine legitimate governance and are, therefore, seen as a crime against the state.

Espionage

It is illegal to gather and transmit classified information to a foreign government, regardless of whether the act is motivated by political, military, or economic gain.

Sabotage

Sabotage is the deliberate destruction or disruption of infrastructure, facilities, communication systems, defense systems, and other resources, aiming to weaken the government’s ability to function normally. Along with economic damage, it can be a threat to national security and a risk to public safety. It is, therefore, a crime against the state.

Other crimes against the state include:

  • Treason
  • Cyber Warfare
  • Insurrection
  • Coup d’État
  • Terrorism

White-collar and Collar Crimes

Like economic or financial crimes, white-collar and collar crimes involve financial gain through the manipulation or illegal exploitation of financial and economic systems. However, the difference is that white-collar and collar crimes are committed by business and government professionals—i.e., those with a high social standing who otherwise enjoy the trust and confidence of the public.

White-collar crimes are committed in many forms, some of which we’ve already covered. They include: 

  • Fraud
  • Embezzlement
  • Insider Trading
  • Money Laundering
  • Forgery
  • Identity Theft
  • Bribery
  • Cybercrime
  • Corporate Espionage

A report released by the Council of Criminal Justice in January 2024 examines criminal trends in monthly rates for 12 offenses reported across 38 American cities.

While the data does not accurately represent the United States as a whole, it does paint a helpful picture of criminal trends across the nation.

Homicides

The number of homicides in the 32 reporting cities had decreased by 10%, with 515 fewer homicides reported in 2023 compared to 2022. However, this number is still significantly elevated compared to 2019, with 18% more homicides occurring in 2023 compared to the year prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Other Violent Offenses

Incidents of aggravated assault were fewer by 3% in 2023 compared to 2022. Specifically, gun assaults were 7% lower in 11 of the 32 reporting cities. Carjacking, which typically includes the use or threat of violence, was 5% lower in 10 of the reporting cities, though the categories for robberies and domestic violence each rose by 2%.

Crimes Against Property

The number of crimes against property as a whole category fell from the previous year, with 3% fewer incidents of residential burglaries, 7% fewer non-residential burglaries, and 4% fewer larcenies in 2023 compared to 2022.

Drug Offenses

Despite the drop in other crime categories, drug offenses across the reporting cities increased by 4%.

Motor Vehicle Theft

Motor vehicle theft has been on a steep upward trajectory since the summer of 2020. There were 29% more reported vehicle thefts in 2023 compared to the previous year. As stolen vehicles are often used in the commission of other crimes, including robberies and drive-by shootings, this is a worrying trend for authorities.

Cybercrime

Crimes committed in cyberspace are increasing significantly. With the increased reliance on technology and digital platforms for communication as well as the management of personal and business finances and transactions, cybercrimes, including identity theft, hacking, and online fraud, have become more prevalent. According to the U.S. Department of State, the FBI estimated that over $4 billion was lost to cybercrime alone in 2020.

Preventive Measures and Penalties

From deferred adjudication and educational programs to restorative practice and harsh punishments, a range of strategies and methods are used as preventative measures to combat crime rates and reduce the risk of recidivism. Although penalties and punishments vary from state to state, the most severe types of crimes, including capital or first-degree murder, are typically met with severe punishment, including—in some states—the death penalty.

Authorities often hand out harsh punishments for alcohol and drug-related offenses to deter others from committing the same crimes. Equally, various preventative programs throughout the country exist for first-time offenders and minors. These programs focus on rehabilitation and restorative practices designed to reduce the risk of reoffending and encourage behavioral change.

Convictions for any type of crime often come with lasting consequences that range from difficulties in finding employment and securing housing to financial hardship, anxiety, and a loss of reputation.

However, criminal charges do not always lead to a conviction. That’s why it’s essential for anyone facing criminal charges to seek guidance and support from an experienced defense attorney.

If you are facing criminal charges, a defense lawyer can ensure that your rights are protected and advocate on your behalf in court proceedings. Whether it’s an outright denial or a fight to reduce the charges, an attorney can thoroughly investigate your case, craft compelling arguments, and help you achieve the best possible outcome. Without this support and guidance, you could face the harshest penalties and even unjust outcomes.

FAQs About Types of Crimes

Which Crimes Are Typically Seen as the Most Severe and Come with the Harshest Penalties?

Crimes against persons are often considered the most serious category of criminal offenses. Convictions for these offenses, which include murder, kidnapping, and other violent crimes, are typically met with harsh penalties, including imprisonment and hefty fines.

That said, felonies in other categories can also be met with the most severe penalties. For example, treason and sedition—both crimes against the state—are Class A felonies that are punishable by the death penalty under some circumstances. 

What Are the Ten Most Frequently Committed Crimes?

Property crimes are the most frequently committed crimes in the United States. The most common crimes, including crimes against property and persons, include:

  • Larceny/theft
  • Burglary
  • Assault, aggravated assault, and domestic violence
  • Motor Vehicle Theft
  • Robbery
  • Rape
  • Murder/manslaughter
  • Drug abuse and trafficking
  • DWI/DUI
  • Cybercrime

Are Economic Crimes and White-Collar Crimes the Same Thing?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, white-collar crimes usually refer to offenses committed by those with a high social standing and who hold positions of trust, such as doctors, politicians, company directors, and other leading personnel in an organization.

How Do Legal Consequences Vary for Different Types of Crimes?

The legal consequences and penalties for crimes depend on the classification of the offense rather than its category or type. For example, in Texas, aggravated assault that causes serious bodily injury and embezzlement (where the value was $300,000 or more) are both classified as first-degree felonies, even though the first offense is a “crime against persons,” while the latter is a “white-collar crime.”

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