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An offence, in its legal signification, means the transgression of a law. Every citizen of the United States is also a citizen of a state or territory. He may be said to owe allegiance to two sovereigns, and may be liable to punishment for an infraction of the laws of either. The same act may be an offence or transgression of the laws of both. That either or both may (if they see fit) punish such an offender cannot be doubted. Yet 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. He could not plead the punishment by one in bar to a conviction by the other.
Defendant Bartkus was acquitted of robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C.S. § 2113, in federal court. Defendant was then convicted of robbery, in violation of Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, para. 501 (1951), in state court on facts that were substantially identical to those contained in the prior federal indictment. The conviction was affirmed by the state's supreme court. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari because the petition raised a substantial question concerning the application of the Fourteenth Amendment.
By convicting the defendant under state law, notwithstanding his acquittal in federal court, were the defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment rights violated?
The Court held that since the second prosecution was by the state, and not the federal government, defendant's claim of unconstitutionality rested upon the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. According to the Court, the task of determining if the federal and state statutes were so much alike that a prosecution under the former barred a prosecution under the latter depended upon a judgment of the gravamen of the state statute and an understanding of the scope of the bar that was historically granted in the state to prevent successive state prosecutions. In this case, the Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment was not to be used to interfere with a state's efforts to develop a rational body of criminal law and that the record did not show that the state prosecution was a sham or cover for the federal prosecution. Accordingly, the Court held that the state prosecution for violation of its own penal law after a prior acquittal for a federal offense, on substantially the same evidence, did not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.