The first time I recall being made aware that a state and the U.S. could both charge a citizen based on the same act was during the Rodney King Ethics Train Wreck, when after the jury acquitted the LA cops involved and the riots ensued, the Justice Department charged them with violating King’s civil rights. They were convicted, and sent to prison. That sure seemed like double jeopardy to me [See: the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which provides in part: “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb….] and I wondered why the Supreme Court allowed it.
Why has remained a good question, but when is clear: in 1876, the Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that the government of the United States is a separate sovereign from any State:
This does not, however, necessarily imply that the two governments possess powers in common, or bring them into conflict with each other. It is the natural consequence of a citizenship which owes allegiance to two sovereignties, and claims protection from both. The citizen cannot complain, because he has voluntarily submitted himself to such a form of government. He owes allegiance to the two departments, so to speak, and within their respective spheres must pay the penalties which each exacts for disobedience to its laws. In return, he can demand protection from each within its own jurisdiction.
Thus the bizarre construct known as the dual sovereignty rule was born. It means that double jeopardy doesn’t apply when a state and the nation try the same individual for the same criminal act. It seems unfair, because it is unfair. It is, however, old. Continue reading