Double Jeopardy Essay

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Double jeopardy is a long-standing procedural defense and legal principle that originated in Athens in 355 B.C.E. In its principal form double jeopardy protects an individual from being prosecuted on more than one occasion for the same offense. It also prohibits the application of multiple punishments for the same offense in the same statewide jurisdiction or in the same court (a civil court verses a criminal court). Double jeopardy is prohibited in cases that have previously returned an acquittal, a conviction, or have resulted in mistrial. To be tried twice for the same offense would constitute a serious violation of ethical standards in the U.S. legal system.

The double jeopardy clause can be found in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It prohibits an individual from being tried or punished twice for the same offense; as stated in the Fifth Amendment, “ … nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. …” This clause is incorporated and applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Additionally, a double jeopardy clause can also be found in each of the 50 states through their respective constitutions, statutes, or in common law. In the United States, double jeopardy was designed as a safety net to prohibit government with all its resources from pursuing the conviction of an individual for an alleged offense after an acquittal, subjecting the defendant to excessive embarrassment, unnecessary financial burdens, and a potentially heavy sentence.

Even though the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits state and federal governments from prosecuting and convicting individuals twice for the same offense, U.S. courts have pushed the limits of double jeopardy by prosecuting individuals for the same offense in both state and federal jurisdictions. The double prosecution of defendants through separate jurisdictions is known as the dual-sovereignty doctrine and was upheld in U.S. v. Koon (1994).

In U.S. v. Koon, two Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in a state court in California for excessive use of force, but were then charged, tried, and convicted in federal court for violating Rodney King’s civil rights in a violent videotaped beating. An appeals court upheld the conviction, stating that an individual that violates the laws of two separate sovereignties has violated two separate laws and therefore is eligible for prosecution by both governments, even if it is the exact same act.

Additionally, in accordance with Heath v. Alabama (1985), the dual-sovereignty doctrine also allows for the prosecution of a defendant by two different state jurisdictions when an offense has occurred in both jurisdictions. In this particular case, Heath had hired two individuals from Georgia to kill his wife (who lived across the state line in Alabama). The two murderers kidnapped his wife in Alabama, took her across state lines and murdered her in Georgia. In Georgia, Heath pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that same year, Alabama convicted Heath on a charge of murder during a kidnapping in the first degree and sentenced him to death. What appeared to be a violation of double jeopardy was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court under the dual-sovereignty doctrine.

It should be noted that even though the dual-sovereignty doctrine applies to state and federal jurisdictions, it does not apply to a state and one of its own smaller in-state jurisdictions, such as a city, county, or village, even though the state and its smaller in-state jurisdictions are also completely separate jurisdictions.

Another exception to the double jeopardy rule involves a member of the military being court martialed by the U.S. Armed Forces even if he or she has been acquitted by a civilian court. Military courts are completely separate in their jurisdictions from civilian courts. However, a juvenile that is acquitted on all charges may not be tried as an adult for the same offense even though they are different courts.

Furthermore, the double jeopardy clause primarily applies to criminal procedures. Generally, an individual may be prosecuted a second time on the same offense in a civil procedure after a decision has been rendered in a criminal matter. Civil matters are not viewed by courts as punitive in nature and do not carry the possibility of a “life or limb” punishment; therefore, governments are generally allowed to pursue compensation for losses incurred. In the O. J. Simpson case, the state of California prosecuted Simpson for the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, and despite Simpson’s acquittal on murder charges, three wrongful death civil suits were filed against him by the family members of the two victims. The successful civil suits, which did not carry the more difficult “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof required in criminal court, were filed to help compensate the family members for their losses. However, if compensations awarded for remedial remedies are viewed as overwhelmingly disproportionate, then they may be viewed as punitive and may allow for the application of the double jeopardy clause, if the state is acting as the plaintiff. The overwhelmingly disproportionate standard does not apply to private party plaintiffs.

Additionally, the Supreme Court noted in Blockburger v. U.S. (1932) that being punished for two separate offenses that stem from the same act does not violate the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution as noted. The Supreme Court ruled that an individual may be tried and punished for two crimes if each crime contains a mutually exclusive element. Therefore, an individual may actually be tried and punished for several offenses within a single act, such as robbery and murder if the murder arose during the commission of a robbery. The Blockburger case is the standard for determining double jeopardy. However, if any offense is engulfed by another offense, then the two are deemed one in the same, and then the double jeopardy clause may be activated.


  1. Allen, Ronald Jay, Bard Ferrall, and John Ratnaswamy. “The Double Jeopardy Clause, Constitutional Interpretation and the Limits of Formal Logic.” Valparaiso University Law Review, v.26/1 (1991).
  2. (Accessed September 2013).
  3. Amar, Akhil Reed and Jonathan L. Marcus. “Double Jeopardy Law After Rodney King.” Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 989, 1995.
  4. Colb, Sherry F. “What Purpose Does the Double Jeopardy Clause Serve?: The U.S. Supreme Court Grants Review in Blueford v. Arkansas.” Justia. com. (November 2, 2011). (Accessed September 2013).

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