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Double Jeopardy: What Constitutes the Same Offense

The final question courts must resolve in double jeopardy litigation is determining whether successive prosecutions or punishments are for the "same offense." Jeopardy may have already attached and terminated in a prior criminal proceeding, but the state may bring further criminal action against a person so long as it is not for the same offense. Courts have analyzed this question in several ways, depending on whether the state is attempting to re-prosecute a defendant or impose multiple punishments.

At common law a single episode of criminal behavior produced only one prosecution, no matter how many wrongful acts may have been committed during that episode. But over the last fifty years the proliferation of overlapping and related offenses has made it possible for the government to prosecute someone for several different crimes stemming from the same set of circumstances. For example, an individual who has stolen a car to facilitate an abduction resulting in attempted rape could be separately prosecuted and punished for auto theft, kidnapping, and molestation. This development has significantly enlarged prosecutors' discretion over the charging process.

The Supreme Court curbed this discretion in Blockburger v. United States. The Court said that the government may prosecute an individual for more than one offense stemming from a single course of conduct only when each offense requires proof of a fact the other does not. Blockburger requires courts to examine the elements of each offense as they are delineated by statute, without regard to the actual evidence that will be introduced at trial. The prosecution has the burden of demonstrating that each offense has at least one mutually exclusive element. If any one offense is completely subsumed by another, such as a lesser included offense, the two offenses are deemed the same, and punishment is allowed only for one.

Blockburger is the exclusive means by which courts determine whether cumulative punishments pass muster under the Double Jeopardy Clause. But several other methods have been used by courts to determine whether successive prosecutions are for the same offense. Collateral estoppel, which prevents the same parties from relitigating ultimate factual issues previously determined by a valid and final judgment, is one such method. In Ashe v. Swenson, the Supreme Court collaterally estopped the government from prosecuting an individual for robbing one of six men at a poker game when a jury had already acquitted him of robbing another one of the six. Although the second prosecution would have been permitted under Blockburger because two different victims were involved, the government here was not allowed to rehearse its case and secure a conviction against a person already declared not guilty of essentially the same crime.

The "same transaction" analysis is another means by which courts determine whether successive prosecutions will survive constitutional scrutiny. It requires the prosecution to join all offenses committed during a continuous interval that share a common factual basis and display a single goal or intent. The same transaction test is used by many state courts to bar successive prosecutions for the same offense. However, no federal court has ever adopted it.

Both state and federal courts have employed the "actual evidence" test to preclude successive prosecutions for a single offense. Unlike Blockburger, which examines the statutory elements of proof, the "actual evidence" test requires courts to compare the evidence "actually" introduced during the first trial with the evidence sought to be introduced by the prosecution at the second trial. Criminal offenses are characterized as the same when the evidence necessary to support a conviction for one offense would be sufficient to support a conviction for the other.

Under the "same conduct" analysis the government is forbidden from twice prosecuting an individual for the same criminal behavior, regardless of the actual evidence introduced during trial and regardless of the statutory elements of the offense. For example, this analysis has been applied to prevent prosecuting someone for vehicular homicide resulting from drunk driving, when the defendant had been earlier convicted for driving while under the influence of alcohol. The second prosecution would have been permitted had the state been able to prove the driver's negligence without proof of his intoxication. The U. S. Supreme Court applied this analysis for three years before abandoning it in 1993. However, the "same conduct" analysis is still utilized by some state courts interpreting their own constitutions and statutes.

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Double jeopardy is not a clear-cut concept and can be very complicated depending on your situation and the facts of your case. However, if it applies, it may very well determine the outcome in your case. Learn more about double jeopardy and how it can impact you by contacting a criminal defense lawyer in your area. You can talk to one today and receive a free evaluation of your legal situation.

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