Anyone who has watched courtroom drama on TV has heard of double jeopardy—the 5th Amendment protections against being tried twice for the same crime. But there is a qualification here — separate prosecutions are permitted when state and federal governments prosecute separately for the same crime. In fact, two different state governments could prosecute in two separate trials for a single offense if both have jurisdiction in the case. And there is one more consideration: civil and criminal trials could pursue different forms of justice for the same act.
An Example of Two Trials for the Same Act in Los Angeles
Originally, the Double Jeopardy Clause applied to just federal cases, but it later was integrated into state laws, as well. While it is true that a criminal trial and its related penalties cannot be held successively for the same act or omission, the Supreme Court has held that both civil and criminal sanctions may be handed down for the same offense after separate civil and criminal trials. So, an offender might be tried criminally for a particular offense, only to later face civil charges in a separate trial based on the same actions.
A notorious situation illustrating this ability involves the criminal murder trial of O.J. Simpson seeking incarceration or worse (found not guilty), followed by the civil trial for wrongful death seeking monetary damages after the initial trial (found guilty). Simpson managed to avoid prison time in the criminal trial but was ordered to pay over $33 million in damages after being found responsible for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson (his ex-wife) and Ronald Goldman in the civil trial. Same act, different trials, with different goals and different outcomes. But even after being found guilty in the civil trial, Simpson could not be retried criminally for the same offense under double jeopardy protections.
What Constitutes the Same Offense?
When weighing whether an act can be charged a second time, prosecutors must examine whether each offense to be charged has an element that is not encompassed in the previous trial. Without that unique element, it would be considered double jeopardy. In the O.J. Simpson case, for example, because the elements of the case were unchanged, the case could not be retried in a criminal court despite the guilty verdict in the civil trial.
When is Jeopardy Attached?
Jeopardy is attached when:
- A jury is sworn in for a jury trial;
- Any witness is sworn in in a district court;
- Initial evidence is heard in a trial before a judge with no jury;
- A guilty plea is accepted by a judge.
In Simpson’s case, the defendant had double jeopardy protections as soon as the jury was sworn in because he had a jury trial. Legal problems pursuant to the civil trial were completely unrelated to the slayings of his ex-wife and Goldman. Continue reading