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Supreme Court Upholds 'Separate Sovereignties' Exception

Thumbnail image for AdobeStock_116715709 (1).jpegBy a 7-2 vote, the highest court in the land once again reaffirmed the federal government's power to retry an individual for the same offense.

Writing for the majority in Gamble v. United States, Justice Samuel Alito argued these situations do not fall within the Fifth Amendment's prohibition on double jeopardy, because "a crime under one sovereign's laws is not 'the same offense' as a crime under the laws of another sovereign." To rule otherwise would go against "170 years of precedent," he added. In separate dissents, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Neal Gorsuch asserted that it was inherently unfair to prosecute a person twice for the same offense.

In this case, Terance Gamble, who had a robbery conviction on his record, pleaded guilty to felony possession of a firearm in Alabama and then pleaded guilty in federal court to similar charges.

Separate Sovereignties and Drug Cases

This exception comes up a lot in drug possession cases. Most mind-altering drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, are illegal under both state and federal law. Generally, if the federal government successfully prosecutes a drug possession case, state authorities leave it alone, and vice versa. However, in some situations, the non-prosecuting authority feels that the punishment was not stiff enough, so it files additional charges. That's especially true of certain cocaine and crack possession crimes, which are relatively lenient state jail felonies in Texas.

The separate sovereignty doctrine also comes up in complex drug trafficking cases. These prosecutions have lots of moving parts. Many times, the federal government almost treats state prosecutions like dress rehearsals. If there is a problem in the state's case which leads to a not-guilty verdict or a defendant-friendly plea bargain agreement, the feds will correct the problem and re-prosecute the ame case in federal court.

Separate Sovereignties and Executive Pardons

Savvy Fort Worth expunction lawyers often rely on executive pardons. These pardons are much more common than people think. You do not need to be a rich donor to get one. The conviction simply needs to be in line with the governor or president's political agenda. Former President Barack Obama pardoned hundreds of drug crime sentences which he considered excessive. Texas governors often do the same thing, especially toward the end of their terms when they do not face any political backlash.

Since the separate sovereignties exception remains in place, it may be harder to obtain pardon-based expungements. If a governor issues a pardon, and the statute of limitations has not expired, the feds could re-prosecute the case, and the defendant's hard-won pardon would be moot.

Once again, the Supreme Court upheld government power in the face of individual rights. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth, contact Herreth Law. Convenient payment plans are available.

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