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Double Jeopardy

When most Americans hear the phrase “double jeopardy” it usually brings to mind one of two scenarios: 1) a chance for a contestant to score big on the TV gameshow “Jeopardy!”, or 2) the idea that you cannot be tried twice for the same crime. While recently the former has been getting a lot of attention in the news, the United States Supreme Court had an opportunity to provide very important insight into the latter.

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment protects individuals from being tried twice for the same offense. For example, if a criminal defendant is acquitted for stealing a stereo out of a car, the State does not get to call a mulligan and put the defendant back on trial a second time. In short, the State cannot keep trying a defendant for the same crime over and over again until it gets a conviction. 

In Gamble v. United States, the United States Supreme Court determined what the Fifth Amendment means by “offense” when it prohibits a defendant from being tried twice for the same offense. The case involved the “dual-sovereignty rule”-referring to when a state and the federal government each charge a criminal defendant for the same crime. For example, in Gamble, the defendant was charged by Alabama for possessing a handgun while under disability (i.e. he had a prior violent felony conviction) and was charged by the federal government for violating a federal law that prohibits felons from possessing a firearm. The act was the same for both crimes, but the law was different-one state and one federal.

Gamble argued that his Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy rights were violated because he was convicted twice for the same crime of possessing a firearm. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 vote, disagreed. The Court decided that prosecuting Gamble for the same possession of a firearm under disability in two different courts was allowed because they were different “offenses”-one was a violation of Alabama law and one was a violation of the United States Code.

In other words, you can be tried for the same act under state law and federal law. Meaning you could be acquitted for one but convicted under the other, or you can have two convictions and two different sentences imposed upon you. 

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