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You can be tried in state and federal court for the same crime

Some actions violate both state law and federal law. That means it’s possible to try a defendant in both state court and federal court for the same offense if prosecutors choose to do so. 

Typically, federal prosecutors won’t use their resources to try someone if they’ve already been tried, found guilty and received a significant sentence in state court. However, there are times when a person who is found not guilty by a state court will be tried by federal prosecutors. In some cases, even if they’re found guilty, federal prosecutors will nonetheless try a defendant again if federal charges are also applicable.

What did the U.S. Supreme Court rule?

Doesn’t this violate the so-called “double jeopardy” clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Courts – including the U.S. Supreme Court – have ruled that it does not. That’s because the state and federal justice systems are considered separate sovereigns.

In 2019, the nation’s high court affirmed the “dual sovereignty” exception to the double jeopardy clause by a vote of seven to two. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stated that violating state and federal law amounted to separate offenses.

The case that had made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court involved a man who had been convicted of illegal firearms possession in both state and federal court. The two prosecutions meant that he was sentenced to serve an additional three years behind bars.

A famous example from the not-too-distant past

Sometimes, federal prosecutors will try someone for the same actions as the state, but on different counts. One of the more famous examples involves a case that got worldwide attention nearly thirty years ago. 

In 1992, four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted for the beating of Rodney King, which was captured from a distance on videotape in the days before people regularly filmed police interactions on cellphones. All four men were acquitted in state court, setting off massive riots in the city. However, two of the men were subsequently tried and convicted in federal court for violating Mr. King’s civil rights.

If you’re looking at potentially facing both state and federal charges for anything from a white collar crime to a violent crime, it’s crucial that you understand how such a process could work and what can be done to avoid it.