Reasons for Double Jeopardy Protection

Created by FindLaw's team of attorney writers and editors.

The term double jeopardy is not just a gameshow reference. It actually refers to protections that make sure that someone can't be prosecuted in criminal court more than once for the same offense, thereby protecting defendants from the constant threat of prosecution after the case has been adjudicated. Double jeopardy has a long history in criminal law and is based on the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There are many reasons for double jeopardy protection, including the following described below.

The Government's Resources Could Lead to Endless Prosecutions

Along with many of the Bill of Rights Amendments to the Constitution, the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment is designed to protect citizens from their government. In the case of criminal prosecutions, the government generally has greater power and assets at its disposal than a typical defendant. Double jeopardy keeps the government from employing its superior resources to harass a citizen with multiple proceedings and trials for the same act. This is particularly true when a jury has found a defendant not guilty.

Successive Prosecutions Take a Financial, Emotional, and Social Toll on the Accused

Facing criminal charges is no picnic, especially when your “life or limb” is on the line, as the Fifth Amendment reads. Fighting a criminal prosecution can be expensive, psychologically damaging, and stigmatizing. Just knowing someone has been charged with a crime changes how we think of him or her, their job prospects, and more. Double jeopardy recognizes the strain one criminal trial can cause, and prevents further prosecutions for the same offense.

The Decisions of a Judge and Jury Should Count

If a jury were to acquit a criminal defendant and prosecutors were able to begin the same case all over again, this would undercut that jury’s verdict entirely. The same can be said for “court” trials where a judge determines guilt. While a defendant may appeal his or her conviction on certain legal grounds, prosecutors get one bite at the apple, as they say.

The Prosecutors' Power to Charge Individuals Should be Limited

Prosecutors' power to decide what charges to bring against a defendant often go unnoticed. However, the reality is that with the charging decision alone, a prosecutor can have a huge amount of influence over a criminal case and a defendant's life. Any plea deals and penalties will be based on the charges brought. However, limiting prosecutors to one shot at a prosecution, in most cases, encourages wise decision-making about the charges to bring in each case.

It Eliminates Judicial Discretion to Impose Multiple Punishments for a Single Crime

The theory that you should only be punished once for a crime goes hand-in-hand with double jeopardy. The legislature normally outlines what punishments are carried by each crime, while the Fifth Amendment forbids judges from applying multiple punishments to the same criminal action.

However, it should be noted that certain actions or courses of action (even within a short time frame) can result in a slew of offenses that can be charged, and punished, separately. For instance, someone who breaks into a home, intending to steal valuables, and points the weapon at one of the residents who's awaken may be charged with assault in addition to burglary. Since these are two distinct crimes, albeit in the same act, double jeopardy protection doesn't apply.

Protect Your Criminal Rights: Contact a Local Attorney

The reasons for double jeopardy protection are many. But the concept can be confusing, especially figuring out when it applies, when it begins, and when it ends. A local attorney can help you understand the important constitutional protections that are available to you. If you have a criminal case and would like assistance, don't delay; meet with a criminal defense attorney near you today.

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