What is Double Jeopardy?

The United States Constitution was arguably ahead of its time in providing citizens with a clear set of inalienable rights and protecting them from government overreach. One of the ways it does so is by including a double jeopardy clause in its Fifth Amendment, which prevents people from being tried twice for the same offense. This article can help you better understand the double jeopardy clause, including its main benefits and potential exceptions.

Get a Free Consultation

What Is Jeopardy?

what is double jeopardy

Before getting into more detail regarding double jeopardy, it’s essential to understand the concept of jeopardy. In legal contexts, jeopardy refers to a defendant’s risk and danger of being convicted after being charged with a crime. Some common examples of defendants in jeopardy include:

  • Someone who has been charged with a crime but hasn’t yet gone to trial.
  • Defendants on trial for criminal offenses who risk imprisonment or other penalties.
  • Defendants involved in civil lawsuits that put their liberty of property at risk.

What Is Double Jeopardy?

The double jeopardy clause is a part of the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment and protects citizens against being prosecuted and convicted for the same offense twice in the same jurisdiction. This means that the outcome of the initial trial is final, regardless of whether you’ve been acquitted, convicted, or punished in any way. Even if the prosecution team discovers evidence that may turn an acquittal into a conviction, they aren’t legally allowed to pursue a retrial.

The three specific instances in which double jeopardy is valid as a form of defense are:

  • If you’re at risk of being tried for a second time for the same offense after being acquitted the first time.
  • If you’re at risk of being tried for a second time for the same offense after being convicted the first time.
  • If you’re at risk of receiving more than one punishment, such as a fine, community service, or others, for the same crime.

The History of Double Jeopardy Clauses

Double jeopardy has appeared in multiple judicial systems throughout history, and the principle is thought to date back to ancient Greece. It became a part of English law in the 18th century through a treatise written by jurist Sir William Blackstone called Commentaries on the Laws of England, which allowed defendants to use a prior conviction or acquittal to argue against being prosecuted for the same crime. The treatise was highly influential in defining colonial America’s common law, and the concept made its way onto multiple states’ bills of rights and, later, into the U.S. Constitution.

What Are the Main Benefits of the Double Jeopardy Clause?

The general benefit of the double jeopardy clause is that it protects people from potential abuses and errors by the government. The specific ways in which it does this include:

  • Protecting citizens from the emotional and financial burden of facing prosecution for the same offense on multiple occasions.
  • Reducing the possibility that the government wrongfully convicts someone innocent of committing a specific offense.
  • Limiting the government’s ability to bring exaggerated charges against individuals.
  • Preventing the government from not validating a jury’s “not guilty” verdict and ordering another trial for the same offense.

What Are Some Exceptions to the Double Jeopardy Clause?

There are certain situations in which the double jeopardy clause doesn’t apply. They include the following:

The Initial Jeopardy Hasn’t Yet Begun or Ended

The defendant must have been in one of the situations described earlier as “jeopardy” for the double jeopardy clause to apply. This usually means their trial must have begun, and the jeopardy usually starts after the jury is appointed and sworn in. Likewise, the respective jeopardy must officially end before the defendant can claim they’ve been subjected to double jeopardy. The initial jeopardy usually ends when the jury acquits the defendant or after the punishment is handed down in the case of a guilty verdict.

The Defendant Is Subject to Both a Criminal Prosecution and Civil Lawsuit

Being involved in a criminal court case doesn’t prevent a claimant from suing a defendant in civil court for the same act. The protection the double jeopardy clause grants is only valid in criminal court cases. For instance, if a defendant’s negligence has caused other people harm, the affected people and their families can still sue in civil court, even if the defendant is found not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.

The Charges Are From Different Authorities

The double jeopardy clause only applies if the same government authority attempts to prosecute the defendant multiple times. A defendant prosecuted at a state level and found either not guilty or who has completed their punishment can be prosecuted again in a different state or at a federal level for the same crime.

A relatively famous example is the case of Terrence Gamble, who was convicted of second-degree robbery in Alabama in 2008 and later convicted of domestic violence charges. Seven years later, a police officer discovered a handgun in his car during a traffic stop. Since Alabama state laws prohibit domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms, an Alabama state court gave him a one-year prison sentence. However, possessing a firearm after being convicted of domestic violence is also a federal offense, so he was also prosecuted in a federal district court based on the same traffic stop.

The Defendant Has Received Lesser Charges for the Same Crime

Another way a prosecution can pursue charges for the same offense twice is by pursuing different charges. For instance, a defendant found not guilty of first-degree murder by a jury can later be prosecuted again for the same crime for a lesser included offense, with the charge of involuntary manslaughter. Another common example is an individual caught in possession of illegal drugs. If they’re charged with intent to sell and found not guilty, the prosecution can still charge them with illegal possession.

De Castroverde Criminal & Immigration Lawyers Can Help You Establish Double Jeopardy

If you’re ever in a situation where you think the double jeopardy clause may apply, consider contacting an experienced attorney, such as those within our team at De Castroverde Criminal & Immigration Lawyers. We work with you to build a strong case and demonstrate that double jeopardy applies to your situation.

Photo Credit: Image by Trent Erwin is licensed with Unsplash License