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Supreme Court upholds ‘dual sovereigns’ double jeopardy doctrine

On Behalf of | Jun 24, 2019 | Criminal Defense |

Terance Gamble was convicted of second-degree robbery and domestic violence charges in Alabama, both of which made it illegal for him to purchase or carry firearms under Alabama and federal law. In 2015, he was pulled over for a missing headlight. An officer searched his car and found marijuana and a handgun.

That traffic stop led to him being charged by Alabama prosecutors as a felon in possession of a gun. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Then, based on that same traffic stop, the federal government charged Gamble with being a felon in possession of a gun.

Gamble appealed, arguing that the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause should bar him from being prosecuted twice for the exact same offense.

The Double Jeopardy Clause reads: “Nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.”

The courts have already ruled that “put in jeopardy of life or limb” includes being tried for an offense with a sentence including imprisonment. Therefore, it does seem that Gamble’s two trials for being a felon in possession of a firearm would put him in double jeopardy, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately for defendants in Gamble’s situation, the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that it is not double jeopardy to be tried both by a state and the federal government, or by two separate states, over the same incident. This is because each state and the federal government are each considered sovereign. Each sovereign has its own right to try individuals for any crimes in their jurisdiction. This is called the “dual sovereigns” doctrine.

Gamble’s case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a number of scholars and advocates hoped that the high court would overturn the dual sovereigns doctrine.

It did not. In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the high court explicitly upheld the dual sovereignty doctrine.

“As originally understood…an ‘offence’ is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign. So where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws, and two ‘offences,'” Alito wrote.

He added that Gamble had failed to produce sufficient historical evidence to “break the chain of precedent linking dozens of cases over 170 years,” which would have been required to overturn previous decisions upholding the dual sovereigns doctrine.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch dissented separately, arguing in part that states and the federal government are merely “two expressions of a single and sovereign people.”

“It is the poor and the weak, and the unpopular and controversial, who suffer first–and there is nothing to stop them from being the last,” wrote Gorsuch.



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