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On The Front Lines

U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Uphold Ban on Double Jeopardy & Protect Citizens From Successive Prosecutions by Fed and State for the Same Crime

WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to protect citizens from being prosecuted for the same crime by federal and state governments, a fundamental right enshrined in the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause.

In a 7-2 ruling in Gamble v. United States, the Supreme Court affirmed the “separate sovereigns” rule, an exception to the Double Jeopardy doctrine that allows states and the federal government to prosecute a person successive times for the same act, even if the person is found not guilty in the first trial. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch dissented, warning that the Court’s majority had failed to recognize that the people—not the government—should be the ultimate sovereigns of power. The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in Gamble, arguing that the “separate sovereigns” doctrine exception—which recognizes federal and state governments as separate sovereigns with distinct prosecutorial powers—violates the Fifth Amendment by enabling the government to abuse its power to prosecute, which is reflected the nation’s harsh and overly-punitive criminal justice system.

Affiliate attorney Elliott Harding assisted the Institute in presenting the arguments in Gamble.

“As Justice Gorsuch recognized in his dissent, ‘A free society does not allow its government to try the same individual for the same crime until it’s happy with the result,’” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Despite the Constitution’s clear mandate against double jeopardy, the Supreme Court has given the state and federal governments the green light to continue to subject the citizenry to these prosecutorial abuses.”

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb[.]” This prohibition embodies the fundamental principle that it is unfair and an abuse of power for the government to seek to put a person on trial for a criminal offense after that person has already been tried and acquitted (or convicted) of that same offense. However, in a series of cases dating back to the 1850’s, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that, because the states and the federal government are “separate sovereigns,” a person can be put on trial for an offense by the federal government even though the person was tried for the same offense in a state court. In 2015, Terence Gamble was stopped by police while driving with a faulty headlight, and a subsequent search of the vehicle turned up a handgun. Because Gamble had previously been convicted of a felony, his possession of the gun was illegal. He was tried and convicted in state court for illegal possession of a firearm and sentenced to one year imprisonment. While his state conviction was pending, the federal government also charged Gamble with being a felon in possession of a firearm based on the same event that was the basis for his state conviction.

Gamble raised the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause as a defense to the federal charge, but the federal trial court ruled it was forced to reject the defense because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate sovereigns” decisions. The federal court then sentenced Gamble to 46 months’ imprisonment, meaning that Gamble would be imprisoned for nearly three years more than if only the state sentence had been imposed. In its amicus brief in support of Gamble, The Rutherford Institute urged the Supreme Court to overrule the “separate sovereigns” doctrine because it enables a system where federal and state prosecutors and law enforcement officers can work together against a defendant to apply overbearing institutional pressure.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.


Case History

September 13, 2018 • Rutherford Institute Calls on Supreme Court to Uphold Ban on Double Jeopardy, Protect Citizens From Successive Prosecutions by Fed and State

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