Can I be tried for the same crime in state and federal court?

Double Jeopardy Protections

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
— The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution

Double jeopardy is an issue that frequently comes up when a defendant commits a crime in multiple jurisdictions such as different states, different counties, or the state and federal system. The issue often arises either when the defendant’s conduct violates both state and federal law or when the crime takes place in multiple states. Most people have a general idea of what double jeopardy is, but many are surprised to learn that United States Constitution’s double jeopardy protections are much weaker than one might think. In general, double jeopardy is the idea that a defendant may not be tried twice for the same case. If the defendant has already been convicted or acquitted, then the defendant should not be tried again for the same crime in the same court.

A Defendant Who Is Acquitted Cannot Be Tried Twice In The Same Jurisdiction

This rule holds true in both Pennsylvania and federal courts to the extent that a defendant who is acquitted in a Pennsylvania court may not be tried again in a Pennsylvania court and a defendant who is acquitted in a federal court generally may not be tried again in a federal court. However, the law becomes much more complicated when the issue is whether a defendant may face charges in both Pennsylvania and federal court or Pennsylvania and another state.  

The Federal Government May Prosecute Despite a State Court Conviction or Acquittal

Federal law provides very weak protections against a defendant facing charges in both state and federal court for the same conduct. In the federal system, it is possible for the federal government to bring criminal charges against a defendant who has already been convicted of a state crime for the same conduct. The Department of Justice has guidelines which discourage prosecutors from bringing charges against a defendant who has already faced charges in the state system, but there is no absolute ban on the federal government’s ability to do so.

Therefore, a defendant who has been acquitted of charges in the Pennsylvania courts could be charged with and tried in the federal system despite the fact that the defendant already won the case in Pennsylvania. This is because of the idea that the state and the federal government are “dual sovereigns.” This means that under federal law, both the United States and state government may both prosecute you for a crime without violating the constitutional protection against double jeopardy if your act violated both state laws and federal statute.

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Often May Not Bring Charges After A Federal Conviction or Acquittal

Pennsylvania law provides much stronger protections against being tried twice for the same conduct than federal law. A recent case from the Superior Court, Commonwealth v. Gross, illustrates the protections available to a defendant under Pennsylvania law when the defendant has already been tried in federal court. In Gross, the defendant was charged in Pennsylvania with conspiracy to commit unlawful possession of a firearm, firearms not to be carried without a license, possession of firearm prohibited, and lending or giving of firearms prohibited. While the charges were pending, Gross was indicted and pleaded guilty in the federal system for making false statements to a federal firearms licensee in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(1)(A).4. Specifically, the federal government alleged that Gross knowingly lied to a licensed firearms dealer about her current residence when completing ATF Form 4473 in connection with the purchase of a firearm by stating that she resided in Pennsylvania when she actually resided in New Jersey.

After Gross pleaded guilty in federal court, she moved to dismiss the Pennsylvania charges on double jeopardy grounds. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and Gross appealed. In most cases, a criminal defendant may not appeal the denial of a pre-trial motion before the trial has taken. However, double jeopardy motions provide a rare instance in which the defendant may take an interlocutory appeal following the denial of a pre-trial motion so long as the trial court does not find that the interlocutory appeal would be frivolous.  

The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to dismiss on double jeopardy grounds because Pennsylvania provides relatively strong protections against being retried for the same offense following a federal or out-of-state conviction or acquittal. The Superior Court noted that Section 111 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code governs the issue and provides:

When conduct constitutes an offense within the concurrent jurisdiction of this Commonwealth and of the United States or another state, a prosecution in any such other jurisdiction is a bar to a subsequent prosecution in this Commonwealth under the following circumstances: (1) The first prosecution resulted in an acquittal or a conviction as defined in section 109 of this title (relating to when prosecution barred by former prosecution for the same offense) and the subsequent prosecution is based on the same conduct unless: (i) the offense of which the defendant was formerly convicted or acquitted and the offense for which he is subsequently prosecuted each requires proof of a fact not required by the other and the law defining each of such offenses is intended to prevent a substantially different harm or evil.

Pennsylvania May Not Prosecute if the State and Federal Statutes Were Intended to Prevent the Same Harm or Evil

In Gross, the trial court and Commonwealth agreed that Gross had been charged for the same conduct and that the first prosecution had resulted in a conviction. Further, the federal statutes and state statutes clearly had different elements which prosecutors would be required to prove. Therefore, the issue was whether the laws defining each of the offenses were intended to prevent a substantially different harm or evil.

The Superior Court took a fairly broad view in defining the harm or evil which the laws were meant to prevent. The Superior Court found that the purpose of the federal statute prohibiting false statements in connection with the purchase of a firearm was not limited to preventing fraud in connection with the purchase of a firearm from a licensed dealer. Instead, the statute also had the purpose of curbing crime by keeping firearms out of the hands of people who were not entitled to possess them. Thus, the purpose of the federal statute was not only to prevent fraud; it was also to reduce gun violence and violent crime in general.

Likewise, the purpose of the Pennsylvania statutes was to regulate the possession and distribution of firearms, which are highly dangerous and are frequently used in the commission of crimes. Therefore, the Superior Court found that both the federal and state statutes under which Gross was prosecuted were designed to vindicate substantially the same interests, i.e., the protection of the public by prohibiting the transfer of certain firearms to various categories of individuals. Because the Commonwealth failed to show that Pennsylvania had a substantially different interest, the Superior Court barred state prosecutors from bringing charges against Gross for the same conduct for which she had already been convicted in federal court.  

Pennsylvania Provides Greater Double Jeopardy Protections Than Federal Law

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

As Gross illustrates, Pennsylvania law provides greater double jeopardy protections than federal law. Further, these critical distinctions between state and federal law show that criminal law is complicated and that there may be defenses in cases which a non-criminal lawyer could miss. If you are facing criminal charges, it is critical that you hire a criminal defense attorney who focuses his or her practice on criminal law and stays on top of new developments in the law. If you are facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, call 267-225-2545 for a free 15-minute criminal defense strategy session with one of our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.