Double Trouble: Understanding The Legal Concept Of Double Jeopardy

You may have heard the term "double jeopardy" when referring to criminal cases, but many people have an incomplete idea of what this means. The definition of this legal term should not be oversimplified, since there is more to understand when it comes to how this concept is applied and what it covers. To learn more about this fascinating and unique justice system issue, read on.

The Fifth Amendment

Among many other things, this Constitutional amendment provides that no one shall "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb". While it seems simple enough on the face of it, there is a bit more to it. In general, however, this clause to the Fifth Amendment provides a form of protection that prevents citizens from being prosecuted more than once for the same offense.

What is Jeopardy?

In this instance, the word jeopardy means risk; the risk that could result in criminal prosecution. The protections against this risk include:

  • being prosecuted for the same offense after you have been acquitted of a crime.
  • being prosecuted for the same offense after you have been convicted of a crime.
  • being sentenced to more than one punishment for the same offense.

Only Criminal Cases

It should be noted that the double jeopardy protection applies elusively to criminal cases; it cannot be used in civil or administrative law cases. What does this mean? It means that a case can be brought against the defendant using another type of case, and it won't be considered double jeopardy. A well-known example of this use is the O.J. Simpson case. O.J. was acquitted of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in criminal court, but was then later convicted of the wrongful death of those same two people. Since the wrongful death suit was brought in civil court for money damages, it was not considered double jeopardy.

When Does Double Jeopardy Apply?

This legal protection is said to "attach" to a situation when certain actions are taken. Filing criminal charges against someone does not, alone, cause double jeopardy to attach. Usually, the attachment begins when the jury is sworn in. If there is no jury, it begins when the first witness is called.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution had fairness on their minds when they entered this important clause; they believed that the government could only "come to draw water from the well" once, and that was enough. Be sure to discuss this and other important legal concepts with your criminal attorney.