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Can I Be Charged Twice for the Same Crime in Different States?

While you cannot be charged twice in one state for a crime that you were acquitted or convicted of, you may be charged twice in different states for the same crime. For instance, your conduct can be treated as two (or more) separate criminal acts if that conduct violated 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," and it is an exception to the "Double Jeopardy Clause" of the U.S. Constitution.

Double Jeopardy

The constitutional protection against double jeopardy -- being charged twice for the same criminal act—prevents prosecutors from repeatedly bringing charges against a defendant in hopes of eventually getting a guilty verdict. While double jeopardy is a common law concept dating back to Ancient Greece, it is guaranteed in the U.S. by the Fifth Amendment.

But if a single act violates the law of two states, the law treats the act as separate offenses and thus not in conflict with the Double Jeopardy Clause. A second state with a case against a defendant may decide that a conviction in the first state is sufficient, so it does not necessarily mean more than one state will bring charges. Therefore, it is up to the discretion of the particular prosecutor, as with other criminal cases.

Dual Sovereignty Doctrine: Background

Although it wasn't 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, but her body was later found in Georgia. The defendant pleaded guilty in Georgia in exchange for life in prison, but he was then convicted of murder, connected to the kidnapping, and sentenced to death in Alabama.

The defendant claimed double jeopardy in defense to the Alabama charges, which was rejected by the lower courts. The Supreme Court held that the defendant's protection against double jeopardy had not been violated, thus invoking 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."

Sentencing Conflicts

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. Even though Georgia took physical custody of the defendant first, granting it primary jurisdiction and sentencing priority, it likely ceded its primary jurisdiction to Alabama.

Sentences from different jurisdictions for the same crime may run either concurrently or consecutively in accordance with federal law (18 U.S.C. §3584), at the discretion of the courts.

Get a Free Evaluation of Your Legal Situation

Legal issues that cross borders can be very difficult to defend. If you find yourself fighting a war on two fronts, it may be time to get some feedback from a legal professional. Get started today by having an experienced local attorney evaluate your legal issue at no charge to you.

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