News You Can Use: SCOTUS upholds separate sovereigns doctrine in Gamble v. United States

 

This week, in Gamble v United States, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the “longstanding interpretation” of the double jeopardy clause that prosecution of the same crime by separate sovereigns does not violate the Fifth Amendment. The Court was split 7-2.

The Facts

The cops pulled over Terance Gamble for a faulty headlight. A police officer smelled marijuana and searched Gamble’s car, where he found two bags of marijuana, a digital scale and a handgun.

Gamble pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in Alabama state court, and then federal prosecutors indicted him for the same instance of possession in federal court under 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). Gamble moved to dismiss on one ground: his federal prosecution for the gun charge violated the double jeopardy clause. The trial court rejected his claim, explaining that it had to follow the separate sovereigns doctrine unless and until the Supreme Court overruled it. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Opinion (and the notable dissents)

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh. The basic conclusion in the Alito opinion is that, “where there are two sovereigns . . . there are two laws,” and therefore two offenses. Accordingly, prosecution by both state and federal authorities for the same crime but under different statutes is not a double jeopardy violation. Gamble’s primary argument was that the Supreme Court’s line of cases on the “separate sovereigns” doctrine conflicts with the understanding of the Founding Fathers who ratified the double jeopardy clause. But Alito concluded that principles of stare decisis could not be undone by mere “ambiguous historical evidence.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch each filed their own notable dissents. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent included some pointed criticism of the federal code: “The expansion of federal criminal law has exacerbated the problems created by the separate-sovereigns doctrine. Ill effects of the doctrine might once have been tempered by the limited overlap between federal and state criminal law. In the last half century, however, federal criminal law has been extended pervasively into areas once left to the States.” Ginsburg further noted that the “separate sovereigns” doctrine “has been subject to relentless criticism by members of the bench, bar, and academy,” and thus she would have ruled in Gamble’s favor.

Gorsuch’s dissent echoed many of Ginsburg’s sentiments, but he took specific aim at the majority’s stare decisis reasoning, stating: “stare decisis isn’t supposed to be the art of being methodically ignorant of what everyone knows.” In his view, “blind obedience to stare decisis would leave this Court still abiding grotesque errors,” such as the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision holding that blacks were not citizens and could not bring a lawsuit in U.S. courts or its 1944 decision upholding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Gorsuch’s dissent also concludes with a heated criticism of governmental power: “governments may unleash all their might in multiple prosecutions against an individual, exhausting themselves only when those who hold the reins of power are content with the result, it is the poor and the weak, and the unpopular and controversial who suffer first—and there is nothing to stop them from being the last.”

Takeaway

  • Your client can still be charged and tried in both state and federal court for the same underlying conduct, and it does not violate double jeopardy.

News You Can Use: SCOTUS considers eliminating the “separate sovereigns” double jeopardy exception

This week, the Supreme Court hears argument in Gamble v. United States, a case asking whether the Court should overrule the “separate sovereigns” exception to the double jeopardy clause. Gamble has significant practical implications, but also raises interesting issues of constitutional interpretation, historical practice, and adherence to precedent.

Following a 2015 traffic stop in which police found a gun, the state of Alabama prosecuted Mr. Gamble for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison. But the federal government then pursued its own case against him for the same crime (being a felon in possession of a firearm), and based on the same conduct (possessing the firearm found during the traffic stop).

While the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits any person from being tried twice for the same offense, the Supreme Court has long recognized an exception to that principle. Prosecution in federal and state court for the same conduct does not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause because the state and federal governments are considered separate sovereigns. See Abbate v. United States, 359 U.S. 187, 195 (1959).

This “separate sovereigns” exception (also called the “dual sovereignty” exception) would seem to countenance both prosecutions of Mr. Gamble. That’s what the Southern District of Alabama and the Eleventh Circuit both held below. As the circuit court put it, “unless and until the Supreme Court overturns Abbate, [this type of] double jeopardy claim must fail based on the dual sovereignty doctrine.” 694 F. App’x at 750-51.

But Mr. Gamble had an opening to argue for that very overruling. Two terms ago, in Puerto Rico v Sanchez Valle, the Supreme Court held that Puerto Rico was not a separate sovereign from the United States because it derived its authority from Congress. So, Puerto Rico and the United States could not both prosecute a person for the same conduct under equivalent criminal laws.

Notable here, however, was Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence, joined by Justice Thomas, in which she wrote to “flag a larger question that bears fresh examination in an appropriate case”—that is, whether the Court’s separate sovereigns doctrine served the Double Jeopardy Clause’s goal “to shield individuals from the harassment of multiple prosecutions for the same misconduct.” 136 S. Ct. 1877. The concurrence suggested it did not, and that the issue warranted the Court’s attention. 

The Court decided Sanchez-Valle on June 9, 2016.  About a week later, Mr. Gamble moved to dismiss the indictment, the motion predicated on Justice Ginsburg’s concurrence and call to revisit the separate sovereigns doctrine. Two years later, the Supreme Court granted granted certiorari.

SCOTUSblog has an excellent argument preview here: http://www.scotusblog.com/2018/11/argument-preview-justices-to-reconsider-potentially-far-reaching-double-jeopardy-exception/

For a fascinating historical perspective on the question, check out the amicus brief filed by law professors contending that dual sovereignty is a historical accident, and not part of the constitutional design.

 

Takeaways:

  • Be on the lookout for any dual-sovereignty issues in current cases, and preserve that challenge by filing a motion to dismiss the indictment.
  • Remember to pay attention to concurrences and dissents (including dissents from the denial of certiorari). Gamble finds its roots in Justice Ginsburg’s Sanchez-Valle concurrence. Shortly after that concurrence, Mr. Gamble moved to preserve the issue, and two years later the Court granted certiorari on the question.
  • Stare decisis is not always decisive. Even long-standing legal doctrines may be reconsidered, and Mr. Gamble argued persuasively in his petition for certiorari that both the doctrinal and factual premises supporting the separate sovereigns exception have eroded significantly since its adoption. (See Petition at 7-17.)