The Double Jeopardy Clause and Successive Prosecutions by Separate Sovereigns for the Same Act

Under the so-called dual sovereignty doctrine (“DSD”), the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause (“DJC”) is not implicated by successive prosecutions brought by separate sovereigns against the same defendant for the same act. For example, if a defendant is prosecuted first by the federal government for a certain crime, that defendant’s right not “to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”1 for the same offence does not protect him against a subsequent prosecution by a state government for a crime involving the same conduct. As the Court put it in the recent case of Gamble v. United States,2 “a crime under one sovereign’s laws is not ‘the same offence’ as a crime under the laws of another sovereign.”3

I argue in this Article that this DSD errs in two respects, one of which has drawn a bit of attention, and one of which has gone entirely unnoticed in the cases and academic literature. First, as suggested by Justices Ginsburg and Gorsuch in their separate Gamble dissents,4 and as I elaborate, the DSD rests on a mistaken originalist view of how successive prosecutions by separate sovereigns were regarded at common law; consequently, the inference as to how the eighteenth-century English doctrine applies to the United States, which rests on a concept of divided sovereignty alien to the common law, is fundamentally flawed.5

Second, the current and longstanding view of the DJC assesses whether that Clause is implicated by focusing on whether the same offense (or conduct) forms the basis for successive prosecutions by separate sovereigns. I offer an entirely different methodology that does not depend (as does this orthodox view) on an unsound originalist analysis.6 Rather than focusing on what a defendant did or how a sovereign has defined an offense, the better approach to determining whether successive prosecutions by separate sovereigns violate the DJC is to focus on what the jury found. The methodology I propose hones in on the elements of the crime with which a criminal defendant is charged in the initial prosecution because the outcome of that trial will turn on the factfinder’s evaluation of those elements. To my knowledge, nobody has previously proposed this approach to analyzing double jeopardy challenges to successive prosecutions brought by separate sovereigns.

My starting point is the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Gamble, which I summarize in Part I. Next, in Part II, I identify what I refer to as the twin errors that animate the Gamble holding, one entirely historical, and the other primarily analytical. In Part III, I propose a new methodology for examining whether successive prosecutions violate the DJC; I refer to this methodology as an “elements-based approach.” In Part IV, I compare the analytical method outlined in Part III with Gamble itself and illustrate how Gamble would have been decided using an elements-based approach. In Part V, I turn to the principles of issue preclusion and full faith and credit and argue that an elements-based approach to double jeopardy analysis is symmetrical to a similar inquiry in the civil domain. Finally, I conclude by pointing to the DJC-DSD cases the courts have adjudicated over the past two decades, and I ask how consequential the modification I sketch would be on criminal defendants.


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