Dual-Sovereignty Doctrine Up For Gamble

SOPHIA RUB—On December 6, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments for Gamble v. United States. The defendant, Gamble, called for the Court to revisit the constitutionality of the dual-sovereignty doctrine as a valid exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

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The Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits successive prosecutions for the same crime by barring any person from being “subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” However, the protection afforded by the Clause carries with it an important exception: the dual-sovereignty doctrine. Under the dual-sovereignty doctrine, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, the state and federal governments are separate sovereigns.

The Court has affirmed that states are separate sovereigns apart from the Federal government. The Court in Abbate v. United states,  has held that “each State’s power to prosecute is derived from its own ‘inherent sovereignty,’ not from the Federal Government,” and their powers to undertake criminal prosecutions “derive from separate and independent sources of power and authority originally belonging to [the states] before admission to the Union and preserved to them by the Tenth Amendment.” Following Supreme Court precedent, dual-sovereignty allows for a state government and the federal government to prosecute an individual for the same crime without violating the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause.

Although a judicially created and enforced exception, dual-sovereignty’s long-standing history of criticism and constitutionality was most recently considered in Terance Gamble’s motion to dismiss his federal indictment. On November 29, 2015, Gamble was arrested and later convicted in the Mobile County, Alabama Circuit Court as a prohibited person in possession of a firearm in violation of Alabama State Code § 13A-11-72. Gamble pleaded guilty in Alabama state court and served a one-year sentence. However, Gamble was then met by a federal indictment, which charged Gamble with violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)—based on the same incident of November 29, 2015 that gave rise to his state court conviction. Gamble subsequently moved to dismiss his federal indictment arguing that it violated the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Gamble’s motion to dismiss was denied by the district court, finding that “unless and until the Supreme Court overturns Abbate, Gamble’s Double Jeopardy claim must likewise fail.”  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision, opining that prosecuting Gamble for the same conduct for which he had been prosecuted and sentenced for by the State of Alabama fell squarely within the authority vested to states and the federal government under the dual-sovereignty doctrine.

However, the Supreme Court, which has upheld the dual-sovereignty doctrine since its inception 170 years ago, agreed to reconsider its constitutionality by accepting Gamble’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari. Although the Court’s decision remains pending, the legal ramifications is of great importance. On the one hand, if the Court rules in favor of Gamble, thereby effectively terminating the dual-sovereignty doctrine as a valid exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause, at least between the federal and state level, an influx of litigation, reexamining prior interrelated double jeopardy cases would arise—“unravel[ing] the complex tapestry of more than 150 years of double-jeopardy jurisprudence and stare decisis.” Conversely, if the Court were to deny Gamble’s petition, both Federal and state governments would continue to validly impose consecutive prosecutions for the same offense, with the full support of Gamble v. United States as settled and binding law. The Court would effectively insulate lower courts from having to preside over cases such as Gamble, thereby establishing a per se rule authorizing both federal and state governments to bring successive prosecutions and fear reversal only if the Supreme Court were to reconsider its constitutionality once again. However, it would be an interesting decision for the Court to have granted the writ only to affirm settled law, therefore hinting at the very plausible notion that Terance Gamble may in fact become new, settled law.

Although the facts of Gamble do not, on its face, ignite much controversy amongst activists and peers, the legal ramifications go far beyond an ex-felon who violated both state and federal gun possession laws.