Robbing a bank has been since at least the days of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde a frequent crime in the United States. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, every year tens of millions of dollars are stolen in thousands of robberies of financial institutions. The 1934 enactment of a federal law against bank robbery has been seen by some as having trumped state law jurisdiction, but as we will see later on this is not necessarily always true.
Bank robbery law before 1934
At the time of the founding of the Republic under the U.S. Constitution, there were not many crimes that were considered federal in nature. The definition and punishment of crimes were left to the discretion of the individual states, including various forms of robbery. Bank robbery was no exception to this policy.
Federalization of bank robbery law in the 1930s
Beginning in the 1920s and continuing into the 1930s, developments in how bank robberies were being committed led Congress to enact a new law establishing federal jurisdiction over this kind of crime. Bank robbers were often operating in organized gangs that were frequently heavily armed with automatic weapons, and the ongoing development of the automobile gave the crime more of an interstate flavor as these gangs crossed from state to state to evade apprehension by state law enforcement and prosecution under state robbery laws. The new law, 18 U.S.C. Section 2113 established the FBI as the primary federal agency to investigate bank robberies and made these crimes punishable by imprisonment in federal penitentiaries.
The two-sovereigns doctrine
But did the creation of a federal hierarchy of bankruptcy law mean that states can no longer prosecute bank robberies? The answer appears to be “no” in the legal sense, but often “yes” in the practical sense.
The generic crime of robbery is still on the books of every state in the country, including Oklahoma. The Oklahoma robbery statute, Section 801 of Title 21, makes it a crime to rob or to attempt to rob “…any place of business, residence or banking institution” [emphasis added]. This has raised the question of whether it is proper or even permissible for a person to be prosecuted under both state and federal law for the same bank robbery, with the arguments against being based on a variety of Constitutional and legal grounds such as due process and the prohibition against double jeopardy.
Courts, however, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have held that separate federal and state prosecutions are permissible because it is not the act of robbery itself that is being punished but rather the separate “offenses” as defined in the two legal systems: if you rob a bank, you can be punished under the offense of bank robbery under federal law, and under the offense of robbery under state law.
Many states have enacted laws that prohibit state law prosecution for crimes that are punished at the federal level, and federal policy also tends not to prosecute under federal law acts that have been punished under state law, so even though it may be legally possible to be prosecuted twice for the same act, it is not as common an occurrence as one may think. Nonetheless, anyone who has been charged with bank robbery will still need defense counsel that is prepared to represent him against either a state or federal prosecution, on in some cases both.