While law enforcement cannot charge you twice in one state for a single offense, they can charge you twice in different states. For instance, law enforcement can treat your conduct as two (or more) separate criminal acts if your conduct violates the laws of more than one state.
Furthermore, if that conduct was a federal offense, you may be tried and convicted in both a state and federal court. This is known as the "dual sovereignty doctrine," an exception to the "Double Jeopardy Clause" of the U.S. Constitution.
The constitutional protection against double jeopardy prevents prosecutors from repeatedly bringing the same charges against a defendant. There are many reasons for protection against double jeopardy. Double jeopardy protections are a fundamental right for criminal defendants. They prevent the government from prosecuting someone for the same crime twice.
Double jeopardy is a common law concept dating back to Ancient Greece. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees this protection to individuals. The Double Jeopardy Clause states that "no person shall . . . be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb."
Acquittals and Mistrials
Suppose law enforcement charges Dan with sexual assault in Florida. After a jury trial in a state district court, the jury acquits him of his charges. An acquittal means he is found not guilty of his charges. Because of the Double Jeopardy Clause, the prosecution cannot prosecute Dan a second time for the same offense.
Additionally, suppose law enforcement charges Dan with possession of a controlled substance. His case is set for a jury trial at the trial court level. The judge ultimately declares a mistrial because of a hung jury. A mistrial is an exception to the general double jeopardy rule. Thus, in the case of a mistrial, the prosecution can prosecute Dan again. The state could also prosecute any lesser included offenses that police may have charged.
Charges in Multiple States
However, if a single act violates the law of two states, the law treats the act as separate offenses. Suppose police arrest a suspect for driving under the influence (DUI) in Wisconsin. The suspect later admits they drove from Minnesota to Wisconsin before police pulled them over. Both states could prosecute the suspect for DUI.
Prosecuting the suspect in both states does not conflict with the Double Jeopardy Clause. However, a second state with a case against a defendant may decide that a conviction in the first state is sufficient. Therefore, it does not necessarily mean more than one state will bring charges. The states' respective prosecutors have the discretion to prosecute the suspect, as they do with all other criminal cases.
Dual Sovereignty Doctrine: Background
The dual sovereignty doctrine states that when a criminal suspect breaks the laws of two different states, the suspect has committed two separate offenses for double jeopardy purposes.
United States v. Lanza
In United States v. Lanza (1922), the defendant was charged with making and distributing alcohol during Prohibition. He was charged with both state and federal crimes. A Washington state court convicted him. The federal government then used the same evidence against him in the federal court case.
The Supreme Court held that the federal prosecution did not violate the defendant's rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause. The Supreme Court held that state and federal governments were separate sovereigns, and they could prosecute the defendant equally. This became known as the dual sovereignty doctrine.
Heath v. Alabama
Although it was not the first case to address the dual sovereignty doctrine, a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Heath v. Alabama, added some clarity. In this case, two men, hired by the defendant to murder his wife, kidnapped the victim in Alabama. The victim's body was later found in Georgia.
One of the defendants pleaded guilty in Georgia in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. In Alabama, he was tried and convicted of murder connected to the kidnapping and was sentenced to the death penalty.
The defendant claimed double jeopardy in defense regarding the Alabama charges. The Supreme Court held that the defendant's protection against double jeopardy was not violated under the dual sovereignty doctrine:
"The dual sovereignty doctrine provides that when a defendant in a single act violates the 'peace and dignity' of two sovereigns by breaking the laws of each, he has committed two distinct 'offenses' for double jeopardy purposes."
States are thus considered separate sovereigns under this doctrine. This allows one state court to prosecute a criminal defendant and another state to file a second prosecution for the same crime.
Since two or more jurisdictions may convict a defendant for a single criminal act, sentencing conflicts sometimes arise. For example, the defendant in Heath was executed in Alabama in 1992, although he was first sentenced to life in prison by a Georgia court.
Georgia took the defendant's physical custody first, granting Georgia primary jurisdiction and sentencing priority. Georgia then later likely ceded its primary jurisdiction to Alabama. Under federal law, sentences from different jurisdictions for the same crime may run concurrently or consecutively. The court has discretion regarding the execution of the sentences.
Facing Criminal Charges in More Than One State? Get Legal Help
Legal issues that cross state lines can be challenging to defend. A criminal defense attorney can review your case and provide information regarding the following:
- Double jeopardy protections
- When a new trial is warranted
- Criminal law
- Dual sovereignty issues
When facing criminal charges of this severity, a criminal defense lawyer can be an invaluable resource in defending your case. They can put their expertise toward fighting for the best possible outcome for you.