In November 2020, I was invited to be on Podcast Row at CrimeCon House Arrest. During the one-day online event, I met dozens of true crime fans who stopped by my virtual booth to chat. Because CrimeCon focuses on the victims of violent crime and missing person and murder investigations, the number one question I was asked was when can the FBI be called in to take over a stalled or botched local homicide case. I explained that unless the local police department requests behavioral analysis or FBI Laboratory assistance, the FBI has no authority to interfere in a local murder investigation. However, there are circumstances where murder is a violation of federal law and agents work closely with local and state first responders, police departments, and medical examiners on a homicide.
Even in these situations, the presence of a corpse is usually not the primary felony the agents are attempting to solve. Chapter 16 of FBI Myths and Misconception: A Manual for Armchair Detectives provides a more detailed explanation, but here’s a quick list of federal jurisdictions related to murder:
- A local or state police department requests that the FBI file for an Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution (UFAP) warrant to allow the Bureau to enter a local homicide case. The Bureau’s task is the apprehension of the interstate fugitive, not the investigation of the actual murder.
- A homicide occurs on federal property, an Indian reservation, onboard a US Navy or US Merchant Marine ship in international waters, or on US military bases worldwide.
- Another federal violation is also in play when the victim was killed, such as a hate crime where the person’s civil rights were violated, a teller or security guard is murdered during the robbery of a federally insured bank, or a kidnapping where the victim was taken across state lines.
- The murder victim is a US president, or other elected or appointed federal officials, such as cabinet members and members of congress.
- The murder victim is a federal judge, a federal prosecutor, or federal law enforcement official, such as an FBI, DEA, IRS, or Secret Service agent.
- The purpose of the murder was to promote a criminal enterprise, such as in organized crime and drug trafficking.
- A court officer or juror was murdered in retaliation of testimony given at trial.
- The murders involve violent crimes against interstate travelers, such as serial killings.
- The murder affects interstate commerce, such as a murder-for-hire or where the US Postal Service is used to send items to cause the death of the recipient.
So, the FBI does investigate murder, but under specific circumstances. You might want to listen to these fascinating FBI Retired Case File Review episodes featuring FBI murder investigations. To provide more information about the investigation of local homicides, I’ve included two fantastic resources for questions about police procedures, including murders and crime scenes:
Cops And Writers: Crime Scenes And InvestigationsBy Patrick O’Donnell. Recently retired Sgt. O’Donnell has been in charge of thousands of crime scenes and investigations, including homicides, sexual assaults, and robberies. Book two in his series provides invaluable insight into how local law enforcement officers investigate and solve crimes from the start of an investigation to clearing the crime. UPDATE: Patrick is now the host of the Cops and Writers Podcast where he interviews members of state, federal, and local law enforcement and civilian experts about police procedure.
The weekly Writer’s Detective Bureau podcast is devoted to helping writers with the cop stuff in crime fiction. However, it’s also a great place to learn about police procedures in general. The host Adam Richardson is a police detective in California.
FBI Retired Case File Review will be on the world famous “PODCAST ROW” at CRIMECON 2021. After being stuck inside for so long, aren’t you ready to visit the Lone Star State for the biggest and best CrimeCon yet? TICKETS ON SALE NOW! Use code – FBI2021 for 10% discount.