Justices Decline to Overrule Double-Jeopardy Exemption

(CN) – In a decision that could have implications for convicted former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a person can face state and federal prosecution over the same criminal conduct.

In a 7-2 decision affirming an 11th Circuit ruling, the justices declined to overturn the longstanding dual-sovereignty doctrine, which allows the federal government to bring charges against someone who already faced a state prosecution for the same incident.

This courtroom sketch depicts former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort during his sentencing hearing in Alexandria, Va., on March 7, 2019. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

The holding could be particularly important for Manafort, who was found guilty last August of hiding millions of dollars in offshore accounts and lying to bankers to get loans.

While a presidential pardon could free Manafort from prison in the federal case, the high court’s decision means the former lobbyist can still be prosecuted in state courts on similar fraud charges. He has already been indicted in New York.

The underlying case that came before the Supreme Court involves Terance Gamble, who in 2008 was convicted of second-degree robbery in Alabama. He was later convicted of two domestic-violence charges, which bars offenders from purchasing and carrying firearms under separate Alabama state and federal laws.

In 2015, Gamble again ran into trouble with the law when a police officer smelled marijuana coming from his car after pulled him over for a missing headlight. After searching the car, the officer discovered drugs and a handgun.

The state brought charges against Gamble because his previous convictions barred him from possessing a gun. He eventually received a one-year sentence.

While the state charges were pending, however, the federal government stepped in with federal charges for being a felon in possession of a gun. Just like his state case, the federal charges were based on the traffic stop.

Gamble challenged his federal prosecution under the double-jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment, but the court rejected his argument on the basis of the dual-sovereignty doctrine.

Gamble entered a conditional guilty plea that preserved his ability to appeal the court’s decision, but that appeal gave him no relief, as the 11th Circuit ruled multiple Supreme Court cases have upheld the separate-sovereign exception.

The nation’s highest court affirmed that ruling Monday in a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.

“We start with the text of the Fifth Amendment. Al­though the dual-sovereignty rule is often dubbed an ‘excep­tion’ to the double jeopardy right, it is not an exception at all. On the contrary, it follows from the text that defines that right in the first place,” Alito wrote. “As originally understood…an ‘offence’ is defined by a law, and each law is defined by a sovereign. So where there are two sovereigns, there are two laws, and two ‘offences.’”

A departure from the dual-sovereignty precedent demands special justification, Alito said.

“Gamble’s historical evidence is too feeble to break the chain of precedent linking dozens of cases over 170 years,” the George W. Bush appointee wrote for the majority.

Alito was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion, in which she called the dual-sovereignty rule “misguided” and accused the majority of “frittering away” Gamble’s liberty.

“I would hold that the double jeopardy clause bars ‘successive prosecutions [for the same offense] by parts of the whole USA,’” she wrote, citing the high court’s 2016 ruling in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle.

Justice Neil Gorsuch also dissented Monday, writing in a separate opinion that the majority’s holding lacked constitutional support.

“When governments may unleash all their might in multiple prosecutions against an individual, exhausting themselves only when those who hold the reins of power are content with the result, it is the poor and the weak, and the unpopular and controversial, who suffer first—and there is nothing to stop them from being the last,” Gorsuch wrote. “The separate sovereigns exception was wrong when it was invented, and it remains wrong today.”

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