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Explaining Double Jeopardy

Many people have heard the term “double jeopardy” even if it is just because they have been watching one of the numerous crime-based series on TV. The word “jeopardy” is now very little used in everyday speech, but it retains legal value. To put someone in jeopardy is to put them in some sort of danger. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has a clause that protects those who have been already tried for a crime being tried a second or third time for the same crime. The actual clause says that no-one should “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Even though this clause refers to a danger to life, it is taken in legal terms to refer to any crime or juvenile delinquency.

To give an example, say someone has been arrested for fraud. The prosecution, however, doesn’t have enough evidence to prove to a jury that the person was guilty. The defendant is acquitted. Later, prosecutors obtain further evidence that suggests they have a better chance of finding the original defendant guilty. However, because this would mean trying the person for a second time for the same offense, this would constitute “double jeopardy” and would be a breach of the Fifth Amendment, so would be prohibited.

Federal versus state rules on double jeopardy

Alaska, like all other states, makes its own laws, but when it comes to double jeopardy, the Fifth Amendment clause preventing putting someone in double jeopardy takes precedence. In fact, no state can make a law that diminishes the right that American citizens have not to be tried for the same crime twice.

What are the benefits of double jeopardy?

The main reasons for keeping the concept of double jeopardy include:

  • Protecting people who have alleged to have committed a crime from the financial burden and emotional toll of going through more than one trial;
  • Maintaining a certain amount of limit over the power that prosecutors have;
  • Ensuring that there is finality to a decision made after a trial, rather than allowing prosecutors to keep challenging a verdict they didn’t like.

When double jeopardy may not apply – the exceptions

Double jeopardy is not always clear cut as there are several exceptions to its application.

Double jeopardy only applies to crimes and not to civil prosecution. Even if someone has been acquitted of a crime such as DUI, it may not stop a personal injury lawsuit against a driver if it can be shown that their negligence (but not a crime) caused that plaintiff injuries.

Double jeopardy only applies to a single jurisdiction. This means that if someone commits a crime in Alaska and commits a similar crime for the same sort of offense under federal law, then the person can be tried twice – once in a state court, the other in a federal court. This exception has been tested recently in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the exception was upheld 7-2. The ‘one jurisdiction’ rule doesn’t just apply to state and federal laws being broken, but two different states as well.

Double jeopardy cannot be used if prosecutors have dismissed or abandoned the case for one reason or another before going to trial, perhaps because they think they won’t win it based on lack of evidence. This basically means that the person can be tried for the same offense because jeopardy wasn’t ‘attached’ the first time.

Double jeopardy only applies to a second attempt at convicting someone for the same offense. If the person commits more than one offense and is acquitted or convicted for one offense, it doesn’t mean that the same person cannot be tried for a related crime but one that was not the same crime. If someone commits multiple crimes of the same type at the same address, e.g. robberies, then they can be tried separately as double jeopardy would not apply.

Double jeopardy is a fundamental constitutional right

Invoking double jeopardy is a fundamental constitutional right and can keep you from being convicted and out of jail. As can be seen from the exceptions given above, whether double jeopardy can be used to prevent you being tried is by no means guaranteed. It is important that no matter what crime you have been alleged to have committed that you talk to a dedicated criminal defense attorney to receive the protection in law that is your right. Dattan Scott Dattan will fight to represent you in court. You can contact the Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan in Anchorage at 907-276-8008.

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Law Office of Dattan Scott Dattan

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