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When Double Jeopardy Protection 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 that individual for the same conduct are not prohibited. The text of the Fifth Amendment suggests that the protection against double jeopardy extends only to proceedings threatening "life or limb." Nevertheless, the Supreme Court has established that the right against double jeopardy is not limited to capital crimes or corporeal punishment but extends to all felonies, misdemeanors, and juvenile delinquency adjudications, regardless of the punishments they prescribe.

Double Jeopardy Applies in Both Federal and State Courts

In Benton v. Maryland, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause is applicable to both state and federal proceedings. Prior to this ruling, an individual 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, and frequently the level of protection offered was less than that offered under the federal Constitution. The Supreme Court said this was impermissible.

Relying on the doctrine of incorporation described above, the Court held that the right against double jeopardy is so important that each state must afford criminal defendants at least the same amount of protection from multiple prosecutions and punishments that is afforded by the federal government under the Fifth Amendment. Consequently, state courts cannot provide their residents with less protection against double jeopardy than is offered by federal courts, though variations in the level of protection offered can still arise when states offer their residents more protection under their state constitutional provisions than is provided under the federal Constitution.

Double Jeopardy Only Applies to Criminal Proceedings

The Supreme Court has also ruled that the right against double jeopardy precludes only subsequent criminal proceedings. It does not preclude subsequent civil proceedings or administrative proceedings (e.g., a license revocation hearing) against a person who has already been prosecuted for the same act or omission, even if that person is fined in the later civil or administrative proceeding. 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 a 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 the purposes of deterrence and retribution. Civil and administrative proceedings are more remedial in nature. Civil proceedings, for example, seek to compensate injured persons for any losses they have suffered, while administrative proceedings can serve various remedial functions (e.g., license revocation) unrelated to deterrence or retribution. Because civil, administrative, and criminal proceedings serve different objectives, a single course of conduct can give rise to multiple trials in different types of courtrooms.

The multiple legal proceedings brought against O. J. (Orenthal James) Simpson over 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 criminal court, the families of the two victims filed three civil suits against him. The criminal proceedings had been instituted to punish Simpson, incarcerate him, and deter others from similar behavior. The civil suits were designed in part to make the victims' families whole by compensating them with money damages for the losses they suffered.

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Double jeopardy is a fundamental constitutional right and, while it may not protect against a subsequent civil case, it could keep you out of jail. However, there are very limited circumstances when it applies. To find out whether you can add this to your defenses, reach out to a local criminal defense attorney. You can find one today and even obtain a free legal review of your case.

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