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Double Jeopardy

Where Jeopardy Applies

Only certain types of legal proceedings invoke double jeopardy protection. If a particular proceeding does not place an individual in jeopardy, then subsequent proceedings against the same individual for the same conduct are not prohibited. The Fifth Amendment suggests that the protection against double jeopardy extends only to proceedings that threaten "life or limb." Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court has established that the right against double jeopardy is not limited to capital crimes or CORPORAL PUNISHMENT, but that it extends to all felonies, misdemeanors, and juvenile-delinquency adjudications, regardless of the applicable punishments.

In Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784, 89 S. Ct. 2056, 23 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1969), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Double Jeopardy Clause is applicable to state and federal prosecutions. Prior to this ruling, an individual who was accused of violating state law could rely only on that particular state's protection against double jeopardy. Some states offered greater protection against double jeopardy than did others. The Court, relying on the doctrine of incorporation, which makes fundamental principles in the BILL OF RIGHTS applicable to the states through the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT, said this was not permissible. The right against double jeopardy is so important, the Court concluded, that it must be equally conferred upon the citizens of every state. Under Benton, no state may provide its residents with less protection against double jeopardy than that offered by the federal Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also held that the right against double jeopardy precludes only subsequent criminal proceedings. It does not preclude ordinary civil or administrative proceedings against a person who already has been prosecuted for the same act or omission. Nor is prosecution barred by double jeopardy if it is preceded by a final civil or administrative determination on the same issue.

Courts have drawn the distinction between criminal proceedings on the one hand, and civil or administrative proceedings on the other, based on the different purposes served by each. Criminal proceedings are punitive in nature and serve two primary purposes: deterrence and retribution. Civil proceedings are more remedial; their fundamental purpose is to compensate injured persons for any losses incurred. Because civil and criminal remedies fulfill different objectives, a government may provide both for the same offense.

The multiple legal proceedings brought against O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson in the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman illustrate these various objectives. The state of California prosecuted Simpson for the murders of his former wife and her friend. Despite Simpson's acquittal in the criminal case, three civil suits were filed against him by the families of the two victims. The criminal proceedings were instituted with the purpose of punishing Simpson, incarcerating him, and deterring others from similar behavior. The civil suits were intended to make the victims' families whole by compensating them with money damages for the losses they had suffered.

The distinctions between criminal and civil proceedings and between punitive and remedial remedies may appear semantic, but they raise real legal issues. Courts have recognized that civil remedies may advance punitive goals. When they do, double jeopardy questions surface. For example, a civil FORFEITURE or civil fine, although characterized by the legislature as remedial, becomes punitive when the value of the property seized or the amount of the fine imposed is "overwhelmingly disproportionate" to society's loss (Halper). This principle was exemplified when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the federal government from seeking a $130,000 civil penalty against a man who previously had been sentenced to prison for the same offense of filing $585 worth of false MEDICARE claims (Halper). The Court concluded that the gross disparity between the fine imposed and society's economic loss reflected a punitive remedial aim.

Conversely, many courts have ruled that PUNITIVE DAMAGES awarded in civil suits are not sufficiently criminal for double jeopardy purposes when the plaintiff seeking those damages is a private party, not the state. This ruling can be best explained by noting that the Bill of Rights guarantees protection only against government action. It does not create a system of rights and remedies for disputes between private citizens, as do the laws of contracts and TORTS. Courts have not determined whether punitive damages recovered by the government in a civil suit would bar subsequent prosecution, nor have they agreed whether a number of administrative proceedings can be uniformly characterized as punitive or remedial. Cases involving the revocation of professional licenses, driving privileges, PROBATION, and PAROLE have divided courts over the purposes underlying these proceedings.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Doom to EmbargoDouble Jeopardy - Where Jeopardy Applies, When Jeopardy Attaches, When Jeopardy Terminates, What Constitutes The Same Offense