The United States Supreme Court has decided the case of Gamble v. United States. This decision upholds the concept of dual sovereignty which, for purposes of criminal law, allows both the federal government and a state government to prosecute a defendant for the exact same crime. It therefore remains the law that a criminal defendant cannot claim the protections of double jeopardy if he or she was already prosecuted at the state level if the federal government is unhappy with the result and decides to file charges.
Gamble v. United States
In November 2015, a police officer in Mobile, Alabama pulled the defendant over for a damaged headlight. When the officer approached the defendant, he smelled marijuana. The officer searched Gamble’s car, and he found a loaded 9mm handgun. The defendant had previously been convicted of second-degree robbery, and thus he was prohibited from possessing a firearm. At his trial, the defendant pleaded guilty to a charge of violating Alabama’s felon-in-possession-of-a-firearm statute.
After his plea, federal prosecutors then indicted him for the same instance of possession under federal law. The defendant then filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the federal indictment was for the same offense as the one at issue in his state conviction and violated his double jeopardy rights as provided by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Federal District Court denied his motion, invoking the dual-sovereignty doctrine. The defendant then pleaded guilty to the federal offense, but appealed on double jeopardy grounds. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. The defendant then filed a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, and the justices agreed to hear the case.
What is Double Jeopardy?
The Double Jeopardy Clauses of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, § 10 of the Pennsylvania Constitution protect a defendant from repeated criminal prosecutions for the same criminal episode. The basic premise behind the Double Jeopardy Clause is that the government only gets one opportunity to convict a defendant, as such if the defendant is acquitted of a crime then the government cannot continue putting him on trial until they secure a conviction. A conviction also triggers Double Jeopardy protection which is what the defendant in Gamble argued before the United States Supreme Court.
What is The Dual-Sovereignty Doctrine?
The Dual-Sovereignty Doctrine is the idea that more than one sovereign (for example a state government and the federal government) may prosecute an individual without violating the prohibition against double jeopardy if the individual’s act breaks the laws of each sovereignty. Further, the Supreme Court has held 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. As such, a citizen owes a separate and independent allegiance to each sovereign government and must abide by their respective laws. This doctrine is sometimes often referred to as an exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. However, as Justice Alito points out in Gamble, that this is “not an exception at all” because the text of the Fifth Amendment prohibits a subsequent prosecution for an “offense,” not an act.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In a 7-2 ruling, the United States Supreme Court declined to overturn previous precedent upholding the Dual-Sovereignty Doctrine. In its opinion, the Supreme Court focused on how Double Jeopardy Bars subsequent prosecutions for offenses and not acts. Double Jeopardy protects individuals from being in jeopardy “for the same offense.” The Court then analyzed previous decisions which all consistently held that an offense is something that is defined by law and that each law is defined by a sovereign aka government. Therefore, because the U.S. Constitution did not do away with the sovereignty of the states, states are free to make their own laws as well. Consequently, both the federal government and the states could have similar interests in preventing specific evils and thus could have identical laws (i.e. prohibiting persons who have certain convictions from possessing a gun). Therefore, a person can be convicted in both federal and state court for the exact same conduct.
The Court provided a number of hypotheticals to support its ruling that the defendant’s argument should fail. For example, the Court gave the hypothetical of what if a US citizen was killed in a different country (which is a federal offense) and that country prosecuted the murderer and convicted him. Per the Court, if it were to apply jeopardy to acts and not just offenses, then arguably the United States Government would be precluded from prosecuting the murderer because he had already been prosecuted by a foreign government. Per the Court, this is not what the founding fathers intended when they ratified the Fifth Amendment. Accordingly, the defendant will not get relief, and he will be forced to serve both his state sentence and his federal sentence.
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