What Is Double Jeopardy?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on February 11, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

What is double jeopardy -- legally speaking, that is?

While we do appreciate the TV game show "Jeopardy!," we aren't referring to the round where you get double the money for every correct answer-in-the-form-of-a-question. In this case, double jeopardy refers to a much-misunderstood constitutional right.

That would be the right to not "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb," as the Fifth Amendment states. What exactly does that mean?

The general definition of double jeopardy is that it protects people from being prosecuted for the same crime twice. So if you're charged with a crime, tried, and acquitted, the government can't try you again in the hopes of convicting you. But there are limits on how far that protection goes.

Double Jeopardy: Criminal and Civil Cases Are Different

The double jeopardy clause effectively precludes the government from charging you with the same crime twice, but there's still civil law. That means a single illegal act can, and often does, result in both criminal and civil cases against the same defendant.

Think back to the O.J. Simpson case, for example. He was tried in a criminal court and also subject to a civil lawsuit. That's not a problem under double jeopardy.

State and Federal Crimes Aren't the Same

When the Constitution says "the same offense," it means the exact same offense. Legally speaking, a federal charge of murder isn't the same as a state charge of murder, which means you could be tried for both without a problem.

So if your act violates both a federal law and a state law, both federal and state prosecutors can try you for the offense and that's not considered the same crime.

One Action Can Lead to Multiple Charges

Just because you can't be charged with the same crime doesn't mean you can't be charged with several different ones. It's possible that one action can lead to several charges.

Take for example, a drunken driver who crashes into someone. The driver could be charged with a DUI and with assault and battery for the accident. You could also be charged with multiple counts of the same crime if there are multiple victims, without violating double jeopardy.

Of course, your criminal defense attorney should be on the lookout for charges that could violate double jeopardy. But just in case, a little knowledge never hurts.

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