WASHINGTON -- The four Los Angeles police officers tried in the Rodney G. King beating case in federal court had, as all Americans do, a constitutional right not to be tried twice for the same crime -- but that right was never at stake in the federal case.
The reason for that is a Supreme Court ruling in 1922 that permits a federal prosecution even after accused individuals have gone through a state trial, and won. The Los Angeles officers were mainly exonerated in a state trial last year.
Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it is unconstitutional to put a person "twice in jeopardy of life or limb . . . for the same offense."
That is the so-called "double jeopardy" ban. It has been a part of the Constitution since the original Bill of Rights took effect in 1791.
But beginning in 1922, in a Prohibition era criminal case called U.S. vs. Lanza, the Supreme Court has made clear repeatedly that the federal government and a state government may prosecute separately for the same crime without violating the "double jeopardy" clause.
The two governments, the 1922 ruling declared, are each "sovereign." It commented:
"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."
In 1970, however, the court decided that separate prosecutions by a state government and by a city government within that state would be unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment, because city governments are not separate "sovereigns."
In the federal case, the four Los Angeles policemen were charged with a federal crime that first was spelled out in a post-Civil War law, enacted in 1870.
That law, frequently used to protect the civil rights of blacks in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, makes it illegal to use official authority to deprive an individual of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law.
Motorist Rodney King's right, under federal law, not to be the victim of "excessive force" by police was the right the officers were accused of violating.
Officer Laurence M. Powell, former Officer Timothy E. Wind and Officer Theodore J. Briseno were accused of one count of violating Mr. King's right by hitting him with batons, kicking him and stomping him.
Sgt. Stacey C. Koon was charged with one count of allowing those officers to violate the motorist's right.
Before a change was made in 1988 in the old law, violations could lead to fines up to $1,000 and a prison term of one year, but the prison term could go as high as 10 years if bodily injury resulted, and to life if death resulted.
In 1988, Congress raised the maximum penalty for the basic violation of the law to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.