separate sovereigns doctrine

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The separate sovereigns doctrine, also known as the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine, allows separate sovereignties, like Federal and State governments, to individually prosecute a defendant for the same crime. The multiple prosecutions do not violate the 5th amendment’s  double jeopardy protection because sovereignties have their own laws, and thus, their own offenses. Therefore, while a defendant may have committed the crime only once, the separate sovereigns have their own laws for regulating the crime. According to the Separate Sovereigns Doctrine, the single crime is actually a crime in each sovereign. 

Separate Sovereigns Doctrine allows a criminal defendant to be prosecuted by a state court and by a federal court for the same offense or cause of action because there are different state and federal laws. Additionally, a criminal defendant may be tried by two separate state courts for the same reasons. For example, in Gamble v U.S., the defendant (and subsequent Petitioner), Terance Gamble, was prosecuted by the State of Alabama and the federal government for the same possession of a firearm violation. Gamble’s convictions were upheld by the United States Supreme Court under the Separate Sovereigns Doctrine.

[Last updated in June of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]