The United States Supreme Court agreed recently to consider whether to overturn a longstanding rule that allows federal and state prosecutions for the same offense. The cert petition filed on behalf of Terrance Gamble was granted, allowing the Court to decide “[w]hether the Supreme Court should overrule the ‘separate sovereigns’ exception to the double jeopardy clause.”
Mr. Gamble is challenging his prosecution by federal officials for possessing a firearm as a felon after Alabama state had already convicted and sentenced him for the same offense. The Double Jeopardy Clause forbids the government from prosecuting a person more than once for the same offense, but courts have long held that this only bars reprosectution by the same sovereign. Put simply, under what is known as the “separate sovereign” exception, the federal government may reprosecute a person after a state prosecution (and vice versa). A defendant can therefore be prosecuted by both the state government and the federal government for the same offense.
My firm in Los Angeles practices criminal law at both the state and federal levels, giving me a unique opportunity to observe how the separate sovereigns exception is applied in California. I have noticed (and been disturbed by) duplicative federal-state prosecutions becoming increasingly common. This trend is in part because of the growing scope of federal criminal law. In addition, I think that states are benefiting from the exception to help fill investigative gaps, or refine legal arguments, that led to exoneration at the federal level. (The same goes for the federal government). Furthermore, the separate sovereigns exceptions appears to be applied more frequently in high profile cases, and/or cases involving serious charges that carry serious social stigma. For instance, the Justice Department recently brought charges against alleged Charlottesville attacker James Fields Jr., who is already awaiting a state trial in Virginia.
Mr. Gamble’s case is instructive on why the separate sovereigns exception raises serious constitutional issues and is ripe for challenge. For defendants like Mr. Gamble, the separate sovereigns exception can result in a lengthier time in custody. As a result of the duplicative conviction, Mr. Gamble must spend an additional three years of his life behind bars. This result is incompatible with the text of the Double Jeopardy Clause, and with the original purpose of the Clause and federalism more broadly. As Mr. Gamble’s petition for a write of certiorari explains:
The court-manufactured “separate sovereigns” exception— pursuant to which [Mr. Gamble’s] otherwise plainly unconstitutional duplicative conviction was upheld— is inconsistent with the plain text and original meaning of the Constitution, and outdated in light of incorporation and a vastly expanded system of federal criminal law.
I agree with Mr. Gamble’s position. The purpose of the Double Jeopardy Clause is that the State, with all its resources and power, should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to stigma, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity. The separate-sovereigns exception cannot be reconciled with this purpose.
That the separate sovereign exception has drawn scrutiny from liberal and conservative justices alike points to its fundamental unfairness. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh noted that both Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas recently questioned the doctrine’s viability. While I am disturbed that the separate sovereigns exception is being applied more readily, I am optimistic that the Supreme Court will find that the exception cannot be squared with the Double Jeopardy Clause and should no longer apply.