Supreme Court Set to Grapple With Double Jeopardy
In the next few months, the Supreme Court is expected to render a decision in the case of Gamble v. United States. Gamble is perhaps one of the most fascinating cases on the Court’s 2019 docket, as it raises complex questions about the contours of federalism, prosecutorial discretion, and the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. Moreover, the Court’s ruling could also have profound implications for the reach of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
In 2015, Terance Martez Gamble was pulled over by Alabama state police. After searching his vehicle, state police officers discovered a handgun, a small quantity of marijuana, and a digital scale. While Gamble pled guilty to drug possession under Alabama state law, he was also charged in both federal and state court for violating firearm laws. After receiving a one-year sentence in state court, Gamble challenged the validity of his federal firearm charges, claiming that the federal prosecution violated his Fifth Amendment rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. However, a federal district court judge rejected this argument, and Gamble subsequently received an additional 46 months for violating federal law.
On its face, the question presented in Gamble appears quite simple: can federal and state authorities charge a criminal defendant for the same offense? The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment states, “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life and limb”. The rationale of the Clause is straightforward. If prosecutors had multiple attempts at convicting a defendant, they would repeatedly file charges until they strong-armed a conviction. At an intuitive level, such a hypothetical may alarm our sensibilities of justice, as unfettered prosecutorial authority would make a mockery of due process in the criminal justice system.
However, existing double jeopardy jurisprudence has carved an important exception to this Constitutional provision. Since the federal government is a “separate sovereign” from state governments, double jeopardy protection only extends to successive prosecutions in either federal or state courts. Therefore, while the federal government would be prohibited from filing multiple firearm prosecutions against Gamble, the Constitution places no such limitation on a concerted effort between federal and state prosecutors who try a defendant on the same charge in two separate courts.
The “separate sovereigns” exception has questionable implications in practice: it effectively allows state and federal prosecutors to “stack charges,” which can coerce defendants into pleading guilty at the state level with the hope of getting more severe federal charges dropped. By extension, the “separate sovereigns” doctrine also appears unduly punitive: federal sentencing is often significantly more stringent than at the state level. The example of Gamble is particularly elucidatory: Gamble’s subsequent federal conviction effectively extended his prison sentence from one year to five years.
However, at a broader level, the “separate sovereigns” doctrine is a natural extension of federalism, a bedrock principle of constitutional law. State governments have broad latitude to legislate on issues that do not conflict with federal law or constitutional provisions. And while the Supremacy Clause of Article VI states that federal law is “supreme” over state law when the two conflict, things gets significantly murkier when federal and state law merely align or coincide rather than explicitly clash. In oral arguments, the U.S. government made a point of stressing these concerns about federalism.
And, upon further analysis, Gamble gets even more convoluted. Would overruling the separate sovereigns doctrine prevent domestic domestic prosecutions of terrorists who harm Americans but have been tried in foreign courts? Furthermore, would eliminating the separate sovereigns doctrine hamper the federal government’s ability to prosecute civil rights violations?
Perhaps one of the most intriguing questions in Gamble relates to the scope of the Mueller investigation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has delegated much of his investigative work to state attorneys general and prosecutors, which presents the possibility that targets in the investigation may face both federal and state charges. Notably, the President’s pardon powers only extend to federal crimes, which means that President Trump lacks the authority to pardon his associates if they are found guilty of state-level offenses. Therefore, if the separate sovereigns doctrine is cast aside, concurrent state and federal prosecutions of Trump associates might be superfluous, and Trump could allow his associates to evade justice by doling out pardons for federal convictions.
The Court will have to grapple with these thorny issues while deciding Gamble, and it’s very possible that the Justices may be wary of overstepping on such a complex issue. Gamble appears to be one of the most intriguing cases on the Court’s 2019 docket.