Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Dual Sovereignty Doctrine Definition:

A maxim of law which allows the double prosecution of a person by more than one state for the same crime, where both states have jurisdiction for the prosecution, and notwithstanding the double jeopardy rule.

Related Terms: Double Jeopardy

In Polito (2007), the Justice Robert Smith of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York wrote:

"[U]nder the so-called dual sovereignty doctrine, the double jeopardy clause of the United States Constitution does not prohibit successive federal and state prosecutions for the same conduct."

In Heath v Alabama, Justice Sandra O'Connor of the United States Supreme Court had adopted these words:

"The dual sovereignty doctrine is founded on the common law conception of crime as an offense against the sovereignty of the government. 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 offences.

"An offence, in its legal signification, means the transgression of a law. Consequently, when the same act transgresses the laws of two sovereigns, it cannot be truly averred that the offender has been twice punished for the same offence; but only that by one act he has committed two offences, for each of which he is justly punishable.

"In applying the dual sovereignty doctrine, then, the crucial determination is whether the two entities that seek successively to prosecute a defendant for the same course of conduct can be termed separate sovereigns. This determination turns on whether the two entities draw their authority to punish the offender from distinct sources of power.

"Thus, the Court has uniformly held that the States are separate sovereigns with respect to the Federal Government because each State's power to prosecute is derived from its own inherent sovereignty, not from the Federal Government

"Each government in determining what shall be an offense against its peace and dignity is exercising its own sovereignty, not that of the other.

"It follows that an act denounced as a crime by both national and state sovereignties is an offense against the peace and dignity of both and may be punished by each."

Numerous jurisdictions have enacted statutes which preempts the doctrine from applying, and bar prosecution of a defendant on a charge for which he has previously been acquitted or convicted under the laws of another jurisdiction.


  • Heath v Alabama, 474 US 82 (1985)
  • Politi v Walsh, 871 N.E. 2d 537

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