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1.1.1: Introduction to Criminal Laws in the United States

Goals

  • Learn how to describe sources of criminal law in the United States.
  • Learn how to describe criminal statutes in the United States.

Instructions

  • Read about sources of criminal law in the United States
  • Read about where you can find criminal codes in the United States
  • Read about the Double Jeopardy Clause
  • Read about Gamble v. United States and the Separate Sovereigns Doctrine
  • Watch the video about Gamble v. United States
  • Answer the questions

1. Sources of Criminal Law in the United States

In the United States there are both federal and state criminal laws.  Depending on the circumstances, a defendant’s activity might constitute a state crime but not a federal crime or a federal crime but not a state crime. Some activity can be prosecuted as both federal and state crimes. 

2. All Criminal Laws in the United States are Codified

In the United States all criminal law is now codified.  That is, criminal laws are written in statutes enacted by legislatures. Unlike tort law or contract law, there is no criminal law based strictly on case law.

Because all criminal law is statutory, now you can usually find the laws online. Federal criminal statutes and are codified in Title 18 of the United States Code. You can find New York’s criminal laws here – – New York’s Penal Code.

Sometimes you can find older laws that are a little funny. Alabama Code § 34-6-12 makes it a crime to play dominos in a billiards parlor unless the billiards parlor is in a county that has a population between 56,500 and 59,000 persons.

3. The Double Jeopardy Clause

The Double Jeopardy Clause is found in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment provides that a person cannot be put on trial twice for the same crime.

4. The Separate Sovereigns Doctrine

The Supreme Court Upholds the Separate Sovereigns Doctrine in Gamble v. United States

On June 17, 2019, the Supreme Court, in Gamble v. United States, affirmed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and held that successive prosecution by state and federal governments does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

You can find background information on the case here or here. The case concerned a defendant who was prosecuted first under state law for unlawfully possessing a gun and then prosecuted under federal law for possessing the gun. On appeal, the defendant argued that these successive prosecutions violated the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause.

Rejecting appellant’s arguments, the Supreme Court held that while the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits the government from putting a person on trial twice for the ‘same offense’, when a person violates both state law and federal law with a single action, he has committed two offenses.  A trial in state court for violating a state law and then a trial in federal court for violating a federal law are not two trials for the same offense – – they are two trials for two distinct offenses.

In reaching this decision, the Supreme Court upheld the “Separate Sovereigns” doctrine.  The states and the federal government have sovereign powers because states and the federal government can enact laws so we can refer to the states and the federal government as “separate sovereigns”.  When separate sovereigns, such as a state and the federal government, successively prosecute a defendant for breaking their laws, they do not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Two Justices wrote dissenting opinions.  Justice Ginsburg and Justice Gorsuch both wanted the Supreme Court to overturn the Eleventh Circuit’s decision on grounds that a state government and the federal government cannot constitutionally prosecute a person twice for what is essentially the same crime.

The video below discusses the Supreme Court’s decision:

4. Complete the exercise below.