Understanding Double JeopardyMany are familiar with the law term “double jeopardy” but are unsure what it means legally speaking? The United States Constitution provides for this protection, which keeps a criminal defendant from having to face prosecution more than once for the same offense, with some exceptions existing. The related clause in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution specifically states that “No person shall be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Most states have the same guarantee for defendants appearing in state court, as well.

Reasons for the Protection of Double Jeopardy
The following are just a few of the reasons for the existence of the protection clause in the Constitution:

  1. To prevent the government from wearing down and falsely convicting innocent individuals of crimes;
  2. To protect individuals from the financial, emotional, and social consequences of multiple prosecutions;
  3. To preserve the integrity of criminal proceedings and their finality; and
  4. To restrict prosecutorial discretion over the charging process.

Double jeopardy most specifically protects against:

  • a prosecution for the same offense after an acquittal,
  • a prosecution for the same offense after a conviction, and
  • more than one punishment for the same offense.

If a defendant is facing any of these scenarios, he or she can find protection under the clause. Double jeopardy specifically also stops a judge from serving someone a new punishment for a crime he or she already served a sentence for. However, it only applies to criminal cases. This means, someone could still be part of a civil lawsuit after being convicted in a criminal case.

Double Jeopardy can be Tricky

It is important to note that the double jeopardy clause only applies after a case has concluded.

For example, it would apply after a jury has reached a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. Double jeopardy also terminates when a judge finds the evidence insufficient to convict the defendant and enters a judgment of acquittal. This means the case will not go before a jury. Here is where understanding double jeopardy does get a little tricky. Just because a case has come to a close doesn’t mean that a retrial is not possible. For example, a hung jury would allow for a retrial and the double jeopardy clause does not apply. Furthermore, double jeopardy protects against different prosecutions for the same offense, but it doesn’t protect a defendant from multiple prosecutions for multiple offenses. It also is important to understand that a state prosecuting someone doesn’t prevent the federal government from prosecuting him or her, as well, and vice versa.