Why you can be charged with the same crime in more than one court

Most people have some familiarity with the term “double jeopardy.” There’s a clause in the U.S. Constitution that protects people from being charged more than once for the same criminal act. The reasoning behind this concept, which actually goes back to Ancient Greece, is that the government shouldn’t be allowed to keep charging someone for a crime until they get a guilty verdict.

How dual sovereignty impacts double jeopardy

The double jeopardy protection, however, doesn’t always apply. There’s something else called the “dual sovereignty doctrine.” That means that two or more sovereignties or jurisdictions can charge a person with the same crime. For example, if someone is accused of kidnapping a person in North Carolina and taking them across the border to Tennessee, they could face charges in both states. 

State and federal courts represent different jurisdictions

That defendant could also face federal charges because kidnapping a person and taking them to another state is a federal and state crime. A number of “white collar” offenses can also be federal and state crimes.

In one case where the defendant claimed double jeopardy that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the court’s ruling explained why a defendant isn’t subject to double jeopardy when the dual sovereignty doctrine applies. It said, “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.”

When more than one jurisdiction is involved, a defendant may be able to serve their sentences from those jurisdictions concurrently. However, they may have to serve out their sentence in one state and then be transferred to a prison in the other state to serve that sentence. An experienced criminal defense attorney can work to get their client the best possible deal.