What the SCOTUS Separate Sovereigns Decision in Gamble Means

In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Gamble vs. United States — a case that could have far-reaching consequences for individuals who might face criminal prosecution in both federal and state court. 

The case focused on the concept of double jeopardy, which refers to an individual being prosecuted twice for the same crime. On a basic level, the double jeopardy clause in the Constitution protects people from standing trial more than once for the same offense. 

However, the Court’s decision in Gamble upheld something known as the “separate sovereigns” doctrine. In short, the doctrine holds that the federal government and the various governments of the states are independent, separate sovereigns with the power to make and enforce their own laws. 

In a 7-2 decision, the Court affirmed that the federal government and the governments of the states are separate and independent. This means that someone can be prosecuted for a federal crime and then prosecuted under state law even if the two prosecutions arise from the same crime.

This could have important implications for individuals who have received pardons for federal crimes. Because an executive pardon for a federal offense is only applicable to federal law an individual charged in state court for the same incident could still face prosecution under state law.   

The Arrest and Lower Court Prosecution in Gamble

The Gamble case arose from a traffic stop that took place in Alabama in 2015. During the stop, the police pulled over Terance Gamble. According to the police report, the officer made the stop due to one of Gamble’s headlights being out.

Through the course of the stop, the officer said he smelled marijuana. As a result, he searched Gamble’s car. The search turned up marijuana, a gun, and a digital scale. 

The officer arrested Gamble, who was charged with drug violations under Alabama law, as well as state and federal firearms charges. Because Gamble had a prior felony he wasn’t supposed to have a weapon. He was convicted in state court and sentenced to a year in prison.

From there Gamble faced a trial in federal court. During his federal trial, Gamble argued that it was unconstitutional for him to stand trial for federal charges. According to his argument, the double jeopardy clause prevented him from facing prosecution for the same incident in both state and federal courts. 

However, the federal trial court disagreed stating that longstanding law considers the federal government and state governments “separate sovereigns.” The federal court sentenced Gamble to almost four years in prison as well as one year of supervised released.

On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the federal trial court’s decision. Gamble then appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

The Court’s Decision in Gamble 

Justice Alito authored the Court’s majority opinion. In his opinion, Justice Alito stated that the separate sovereigns doctrine is actually part of the double jeopardy clause rather than an exception.

Alito clarified that the double jeopardy clause is a prohibition against “successive prosecutions” for the same violation of a law. Because the federal government and the state government are two separate sovereigns with separate laws a federal charge and a state charge are two separate laws.

This meant that Gamble didn’t face prosecution for violating the same law. Rather, he was prosecuted under two different sets of laws.

The Court’s decision went on to state that the separate sovereigns doctrine has been part of the Court’s precedent for more than 170 years. In oral argument other justices noted that the Court has upheld the doctrine in other cases and that prosecutors have relied on it to obtain convictions in high profile cases in the past.

For example, federal prosecutors used the separate sovereigns doctrine to prosecute police officers charged with excessive force in the Rodney King case after a state court in California acquitted the officers of the charges under state law.

What the Gamble Decision Means for Federal Pardons 

As a result of the Court’s decision, the separate sovereigns doctrine still stands. The decision could have an impact in the future in cases where individuals have received an executive pardon for a federal crime. Because of the Court’s decision, someone pardoned for a federal offense could still be prosecuted in state court under state law.

If you have been charged with a crime in both state and federal court, it’s important to work with a Texas criminal defense lawyer who regularly handles federal cases.

Federal prosecutions are complex, and the penalties for federal offenses are typically more serious than those under state law. Your future depends on bringing the most effective defense possible. An experienced federal criminal defense attorney, like Attorney John Helms in Dallas, can help you understand your options and make informed decisions in your case.        

Texas Federal Criminal Defense Law Office

Attorney John M. Helms

Tel: (214) 666-8010