Most people are familiar with the concept of double jeopardy, which means that a person can’t be tried twice for the same offense. What many people don’t realize, however, is that double jeopardy does not apply to separate prosecutions from two different, sovereign jurisdictions. For example, in the case of Heath v. Alabama, a husband hired a hit man to kill his wife. The hit man kidnapped the wife in Alabama, then drove her to Georgia and killed her there. The husband pled guilty to murder in Georgia and was sentenced to life in prison. He was later charged in Alabama and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court upheld his death sentence even though he was convicted of the same murder twice. The reason why is because each state is “sovereign” and is therefore not bound by the prosecutions of a different state.
It is unusual for this kind of situation to arise between two different states because most crimes are not committed across state crimes. When they are, it is most common for the states to coordinate with each other so as not to duplicate their efforts. However, the federal government has sometimes prosecuted a defendant after an unsatisfactory state court result. Most famously, after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted in state court, they were prosecuted again in federal court for civil rights violations and two of the four were convicted and given prison sentences.
This brings us to the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Puerto Rico v. Sanchez-Valle, that came out in June of this year. In that case, Puerto Rico wanted to prosecute a defendant for the same charges he had already been convicted of in federal court. The Supreme Court held that, due to its special history, Puerto Rico is not an independent sovereign from the federal government and the attempted second prosecution was prohibited by double jeopardy.
Double jeopardy can be one of the most complex areas of the criminal law. If any kind of double jeopardy arises in a case you are involved in make sure to consult with an expert criminal lawyer to help deal with it.