Double Jeopardy

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, that, “…nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb…”  This is known as the double jeopardy clause and it protects people from being tried for the same crime on the same set of facts more than one time by the same government.

While the Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause only applies to the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court found in Benton v. Maryland that double jeopardy is a “fundamental ideal in our constitutional heritage” and therefore applies to state governments, as well as to the federal government, through the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Double Jeopardy Rule

Double jeopardy protects a defendant who has already been found not guilty from being tried again for the same crime by the same government.  Double jeopardy allows a defendant who has been found not guilty of an alleged crime to begin to rebuild his or her life secure in the knowledge that the government will not prosecute again based on the same facts. 

A criminal trial is both financially and emotionally expensive and double jeopardy protects a person who is found to be not guilty from reliving that ordeal and it allows that person to begin to pick up the pieces of his or her life that were put on hold.

Exceptions to the Rule

That said, there are times when a defendant can stand trial again based upon the same set of facts without the government violating the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to be protected from double jeopardy.

Different governments may try the same defendant for the same crime on the same facts.  For example, a defendant could be charged by both the federal and the state government for the same or similar crimes arising from the same events.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that if a jury finds a defendant guilty and the judge overrules that conviction that the prosecution may appeal the judge’s action.  This is a limited exception, however.  If the judge finds the defendant not guilty prior to the jury’s determination then the decision is not appealable. 

The government may also decide to retry a defendant if he or she was originally found guilty by a jury or trial judge and that conviction was overturned on the defendant’s appeal.

Further, double jeopardy only applies to criminal charges, not civil charges.  For example, a defendant could be acquitted of felony murder charges and still have to stand trial for the civil charge of wrongful death even if the charges arise from the same set of facts.

Double jeopardy furthers two important objectives.  For the prosecution, the prohibition against trying a defendant twice for the same crime means that it must put its best evidence forward and be as thorough as possible in order to get a conviction.  For the defendant, it means that there is certainty in acquittal and that the defendant can get back to the business of living once he or she is found not guilty.

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