As a German, I was surprised to learn that in the United States, there are penal codes (and prosecution) at two levels of government, namely at the state level, and at the federal level ("federal crime") - under the so-called Dual sovereignty doctrine. This produces interesting problems, such as how to treat acts that are crimes under more than one of the US penal codes.

In Germany, there is only one criminal code (the Strafgesetzbuch), which is enacted by federal parliament, and I believe the situation is similar in other European countries.

So, are there other countries with "competing" penal codes, like the United states?

  • 1
    You beg the question: Is the United States a "country" in the sense of a "state?" Or is it a federation of states, like the European Union? Which leads to a possible answer: Does the European Union have penal codes that compete with those of members?
    – feetwet
    Apr 29, 2016 at 16:16
  • Canada has a similar history and similar legal structure to the US. I suspect Australia is similar, but I don't know. Another country I'd look at would be Mexico.
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2016 at 16:50
  • 1
    @feetwet I am pretty sure the answer to your question is "no." There's no EU penal code.
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2016 at 16:54
  • @phoog: Yes, there is no EU penal code. There are however EU courts, which national courts must defer to in certain cases, e.g. the Court of Justice of the European Union.
    – sleske
    Apr 29, 2016 at 19:13
  • @sleske sure, but is there a crime that can be prosecuted in the EU system directly? I don't think so. Is there an EU prosecutor who can bring a case directly in an EU court? By contrast, in the US, a murder could fall directly under federal jurisdiction (e.g., if the victim is a federal officer), which would not remove it from state jurisdiction.
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2016 at 19:18

2 Answers 2


Federal countries usually define the separation (and sometimes sharing) of legislative competencies in their constitutions. There will also usually be a "default" case for if the competency is not explicitly defined in the constitution. For example, in the United States, the default is to give legislative power to the individual states via the Tenth Amendment. If criminal law is left to the sub-national entities, then the nation can usually still enact a penal code with respect to its competencies (again, the U.S. is a good example).

So, I decided to make this a mini-research project by checking the countries Wikipedia lists as federations. I wasn't able to find an explicit statement as to whether there were competing penal codes in most cases, but was able to find in which level of government the constitution placed criminal law. In some cases where there are "competing" penal codes, the constitution specified which level has supremacy, making for less "competition".

Without further ado, here's what I've been able to find. Links are either to an appropriate Wikipedia page, or the part of the applicable constitution dividing the legislative competencies. Take these with a grain of salt.

Competing penal codes

Single national penal code


  • Argentina
  • Belgium
  • Micronesia
  • St. Kitts and Nevis
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan
  • United Arab Emirates

Many federal states have dual penal codes at the national and sub-national level. These include the USA, India, Australia and Canada.

  • Brazil is a nominally a federal country, yet Brazil doesn't have this (not that I'm telling that you are wrong, just an observation). Apr 29, 2016 at 21:11
  • @gabrieldiego the example state of Germany is also a federal state!
    – phoog
    Apr 29, 2016 at 21:52
  • 3
    In Canada, criminal offenses are exclusively the domain of the federal government. Provinces are limited to regulatory offenses, which, while they can result in imprisonment, are not considered criminal.
    – cpast
    Apr 30, 2016 at 2:21
  • @cpast which seems similar to the example of Germany.
    – phoog
    Apr 30, 2016 at 14:31
  • 3
    I know nothing about India's law, but a quick search suggests India has the Indian Penal Code, which is valid in all states. I could not find anything about state penal codes. Of course, it is difficult to prove a negative...
    – sleske
    May 1, 2016 at 8:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .