The United States Supreme Court has decided the case of Currier v. Virginia, holding that a defendant may waive double jeopardy protections by consenting to the severance of criminal charges and moving for separate trials on different charges. Specifically, the defendant may waive his or her double jeopardy rights by moving to sever a felon in possession of a firearm charge from the other charges in a criminal case.
The Facts of Currier v. Virginia
In Currier, prosecutors charged the defendant with burglary, grand larceny, and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in Virginia. Coincidentally, the defendant was not eligible to possess a gun because he had prior convictions for burglary and grand larceny. Because the defendant was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, prosecutors would have been allowed to introduce his prior convictions for burglary and grand larceny in his trial as the existence of those prior convictions is an element of the statute. This would have been detrimental to his case because the jury would have heard both that he had prior convictions in general and that he had prior convictions for the exact same thing with which he was charged.
Accordingly, the defendant and the Government agreed to sever the charges and hold two separate trials. As discussed in the Court’s opinion, there is no universal way to handle this issue and each jurisdiction is different. In Virginia, a defendant can have two trials: one for the unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and a second trial for the other charges. In this case, Petitioner elected to have two trials. This is not the normal procedure in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, the prosecutors will ordinarily proceed against the defendant on the non-felon in possession charges first. If the prosecution obtains a conviction on all of the charges other than the felon in possession charge, then the defense will typically allow the trial judge to make the decision on the remaining gun charge. If the jury acquits on all of the other charges, then the prosecution will usually move to nolle prosse the remaining gun charge. In some cases, the prosecution does still insist that the jury hear the felon in possession case after it has ruled on the other charges. However, Philadelphia does not typically conduct two separate trials in these types of cases.
The first trial, for the charges of grand larceny and burglary, went very well for the defendant. He was acquitted of both charges. When he appeared for his second trial, his defense attorneys moved to dismiss the gun charge. They argued that it would violate his constitutional right against Double Jeopardy. In the alternative, he asked that the prosecution not be allowed to introduce any evidence pertaining to the grand larceny and burglary charges because he was acquitted of those charges. The trial court denied the defense's request, and the jury found him guilty of the gun charge. The court sentenced him to a lengthy period of incarceration. He appealed through the Virginia state appellate system, and both the Virginia Court of Appeals and the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the denial of his double jeopardy motion. He appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the case.
What is Double Jeopardy?
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits a defendant from being tried twice for the same crime after he or she has been acquitted or convicted of the crime. These situations can become more complicated than one would expect, but a simple example of double jeopardy is this: Imagine a defendant is charged with robbing a bank. The defendant goes to trial, and the jury acquits him of robbing the bank. The same jurisdiction cannot then re-try him again for robbing the bank, even if prosecutors later uncover more evidence that would have likely led to a different verdict.
It is important to note that under the federal constitution and subsequent case law, this protection only applies to the particular jurisdiction that tried the defendant. In other words, just because a defendant is acquitted of a crime at the federal level does not mean that the state government cannot prosecute for the crime too. However, the rules governing this depend on the jurisdiction. Pennsylvania offers much broader Double Jeopardy protections in comparison to other states. Thus, if a defendant is acquitted in federal court, Pennsylvania prosecutors cannot then bring charges. The reverse, however, is not true - if a defendant is acquitted in Pennsylvania court, the federal government can still bring charges. Click here to learn more about double jeopardy in general.
The Double Jeopardy Clause also has a collateral estoppel component to it. What this means is that the government cannot re-litigate a fact that was decided in a defendant’s favor. To give a basic example of this, let’s assume that a defendant punched a person in the face and took their phone. This is technically a robbery, but it is also a simple assault. Let’s also assume that at trial, the government chooses only to proceed on the robbery charge and the defendant is found not guilty. The doctrine of collateral estoppel prevents the government from re-arresting the defendant for simple assault because he was already found not guilty of an essential fact of the case (i.e. punching the complainant) in the robbery trial.
This idea of collateral estoppel, as discussed in Currier, is not a universally accepted idea by legal jurists and remains controversial. However, as the justices noted in their opinion, collateral estoppel was not the issue in this case, though it is a little confusing (as discussed below). The issue in Currier, according to the justices, was whether a defendant can waive his Double Jeopardy protections by seeking a severance of the charges filed against him.
The Court Holds that a Defendant Can Waive His Double Jeopardy Protections When He Agrees to Severance of the Charges
In Currier, the Supreme Court held that a defendant may waive his Double Jeopardy protections when he elects to have two trials. In making its decision, the Court looked at its prior decisions that addressed the issue. In its research, the Court concluded that when a defendant elects to have two trials, he is no longer entitled to Double Jeopardy protections. The Court stated that the Double Jeopardy Clause was designed to protect against government oppression, not from the consequences of a defendant’s voluntary choice.
The defendant, of course, argued that he had no real choice. If he had not elected to sever his cases, than the jury would have heard that he had prior convictions for the same offenses, and he would not have received a fair trial. However, the Supreme Court noted that though he was entitled to have separate trials under Virginia law, it was not a constitutional right to have separate trials. Thus, he was not forced to give up one constitutional right to secure another. Additionally, the Court held that because the defendant consented to the severance of the cases, the prosecution could still introduce evidence relating to the charges for which he had already been acquitted.
This decision will likely prove confusing and frustrating for criminal defendants because even though the defendant was found not guilty of the burglary and the grand larceny charges, the prosecution was allowed to introduce evidence for those crimes in his second trial. The Court made clear that its decision was based on the text of the Fifth Amendment and therefore held that the Double Jeopardy Clause only prohibits re-litigating offenses, not issues or evidence. Consequently, the Court held that the normal rules of evidence apply and thus a trial court must decide whether to allow the introduction of evidence and facts from the prior trial.
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