Supreme Court Considers Double Jeopardy

Published: Oct 28, 2016, by admin in Constitutional Rights, Criminal Defense, Legal Blog

When it comes to criminal defense cases, most people have heard of double jeopardy, but few fully understand it. This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court is attempting to clarify the doctrine of double jeopardy in the case of Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, which may have a significant impact on how criminal cases are prosecuted in the future.

At its core, double jeopardy refers to a criminal suspect’s constitutional guarantee to not be “twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” for the same offense. Enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the prohibition of double jeopardy dictates that a suspect cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime.

How Does Double Jeopardy Work?

While double jeopardy may sound simple in theory, the doctrine’s application to practical situations quickly becomes complex. Over the last century, the Supreme Court has created several principles that dictate how double jeopardy should apply:

  • One criminal charge per offense — A defendant in a criminal trial cannot be charged more than once for a single offense, even if that single offense had multiple victims. For example, if someone is accused of robbing several players at a poker game and a jury finds the defendant not guilty of robbing one victim, a prosecutor cannot bring charges for the alleged robbery of the other players. (Ashe v. Swenson, 1969)
  • Contradictory jury verdicts are not a double jeopardy issue — When a jury reaches logically inconsistent verdicts, such as one acquittal and one conviction for two charges stemming from a single criminal act, the conviction will be allowed to stand. For example, a defendant may be acquitted of conspiring to possess cocaine, yet convicted of using a telephone to conspire to possess cocaine. (United States v. Powell, 1984)
  • If the jury is hung on a charge, the defendant can’t be tried again on that charge — When a jury convicts the defendant on one charge and is hung (cannot reach a decision) on another charge relating to the same criminal act, a prosecutor cannot seek a retrial. (Yeager v. United States, 2009)

What emerges from this line of cases is that the Supreme Court doesn’t want the principle of double jeopardy interfere with the finality of the jury’s decisions. When a jury makes an inconsistent decision—or can’t reach a decision at all—the court will not intervene, whether the circumstances favor the prosecution or the defendant.

Will the Respect for Inconsistent Jury Verdicts Continue to Trump Double Jeopardy?

In the case of Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, the Court is now considering whether double jeopardy protects defendants from being tried for bribery again when:

  • A jury convicted the defendants of bribery, but the appeals court reversed the conviction and ordered a retrial
  • The same jury acquitted the defendants of traveling to exchange a bribe and of conspiring to exchange a bribe

The defendants successfully appealed their conviction for bribery. The appeals court ordered a retrial but before the retrial began, the defendants claimed that they were protected by double jeopardy and that the bribery charges must be dismissed.

Just like in previous Supreme Court cases, this case involves the possibility of a logically inconsistent jury verdict. The defendants might be found guilty of exchanging a bribe, but innocent of conspiring to exchange that very same bribe. There is no hung jury or attempt at a second prosecution for the bribery charge after an acquittal, which are situations where double jeopardy would apply. For these reasons, most agree that the Supreme Court will probably rule that the defendants are not protected by double jeopardy.

Get a Defense Lawyer Who Can Use the Jury System to Your Advantage

For better or for worse, the decisions of juries reside at the heart of the American criminal justice system. Sometimes this reliance works in favor of defendants. For example, there is no law against juries acquitting defendants because they find them likable or because they think the consequences of a conviction are disproportionate to the crime committed—even if the prosecutor has proven their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not only are a lawyer’s mastery of law and knowledge of procedures important, they may also need to convince the jury that you are deserving of an acquittal on emotional grounds. If you are facing criminal charges and want to discuss your defense options with a Chicago criminal defense attorney, call O’Meara Law today at 312-909-0706 for a free and confidential consultation.