SCOTUS: Two sovereigns can charge you with the same crime

On Behalf of | Jul 8, 2019 | Criminal Defense |

When Terance Gamble was pulled over in 2015, it was a big deal. He had been convicted of second-degree robbery in the past, along with two domestic violence offenses. Any of those convictions made it illegal for him to own firearms, and he had a handgun in his car. He wasn’t surprised to be charged by an Alabama prosecutor with being a felon in possession of a gun.

What did surprise him was when the federal government charged him with the exact same crime based on the exact same traffic stop. It’s illegal under both Alabama and federal law to have a firearm after being convicted of a felony or a domestic violence offense. But wasn’t this double jeopardy?

The Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy clause reads, “Nor shall any person be subject to the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” The courts have long held that being put on trial for a crime counts as being “put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Wasn’t Gamble “twice put in jeopardy”?

Gamble appealed the federal charges, but the appeals court held that it wasn’t double jeopardy because the charges had been brought by two different sovereigns, or governments. This is called the “dual sovereigns” doctrine, and it is well established in the law.

That said, many people find the dual sovereigns doctrine to be extremely unsatisfying, and many hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the doctrine in Gamble’s case. Also, the dual sovereigns doctrine is important in some upcoming cases, such as that of President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is charged with crimes under New York law that are extremely similar to those he has been convicted of under federal law.

Two laws: two offenses

In a recent 7-2 decision, the high court upheld the dual sovereigns doctrine. That means that people like Manafort and Gamble can be charged by both a state and the federal government for crimes arising from the very same events.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that “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.’”

He added that overturning the dual sovereigns doctrine would have required special justification, as the doctrine is deeply enmeshed in case law. Gamble failed to present historical evidence sufficient to overcome stare decisis, the principle that the law, once settled, should remain settled.

Both Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented from the opinion. They each argued that, within the U.S., the states and the federal government are two expressions of the same popular will.